What Can We Learn From Finland?
I don't know anything but the basics on Finland: highest PISA scores, virtually no high stakes testing, low poverty rate, low racial diversity, selective teaching profession, etc.
According to me, what is the biggest difference between education in Finland and education in America? I think the selectivity of the teaching profession makes a big difference. I don't usually walk around insulting the intelligence of teachers - overall I think teachers are a creative, dedicated, smart group of people - but I have been in classes with or worked with a fair number of people who are exceptions. I suppose doctors or people of any profession might feel the same way - that there are people about whom you wonder, "how did they make it into this profession?" Having taken the entrance exams and college courses required to obtain a teaching lisence, I don't really wonder. Just about anyone who wants to become a teacher can. I mean, there are ads on the side of my facebook account that say "get a teaching license." Come on now.
Finland is selective and then gives its teachers opportunities to feed their ambition, their creativity, and their desire for respect. The United States does none of those things. So, not only are we not selective - but we make the profession unattractive to those driven, high-achieving people who manage to find their way into the profession on their own.
I also think the vast difference in poverty level impacts student achievement. I come from an upper-middle class family and experienced very few obstacles to making it to school on time, every day, with nothing to worry about aside from doing well in school. Not only am I faced with very different realities for my students, but I actually experience them within my own family. I am a teacher, for goodness sake, and have had to take days off of school for the types of "family emergencies" that I believe higher income students rarely experience. I have spent days at school (in my teacher role) unable to concentrate because of a "family emergency." I have been unsure about how to afford child care, how to maintain reliable transportation, etc. My situation is not dire by any means, but I have had a taste of some of the barriers that must be overcome by some of my students. And I know that my peers and I typically didn't face those type of situations while growing up in our suburban neighborhoods. For the 22% of American students who live in poverty and the countless more who live just above the poverty line - every day may provide a new obstacle to achieving their potential. Overcoming these obstacles will take more than emulating Finland's public education system.
Overall, I'm of the mindset that it's inappropriate to take something that works in 1 situation and assume that it will also work in all other situations. This is true for canned curricula, education legislation, and public school structures. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learned, but I believe Americans will have to figure out a system of education that works for us and our unique situation. Just because Finland doesn't use high stakes testing doesn't mean we shouldn't. It's important to note that public schools can be successful without high stakes tests, but it's also important to remember that we didn't even really know the extent of America's achievement gap until we examined our high stakes test scores.