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If you haven't taken a look at Kevin Carey's recent musings on Finland's highly praised K-12 education system over at The Quick and the Ed, do so now: they're well worth reading and timely for those of you interested in teacher policy.

Why? Well, President-elect Obama, key adviser Linda-Darling Hammond, Arne Duncan and others have talked about improving assessment, offering more flexibility in assessment, etc. Though it's not entirely clear what that means policywise, Darling-Hammond for one is a fan of locally based, frequently non-standardized assessments that give richer information on student achievement. She often notes that Finland uses these locally based tests.

The danger with these cross-cultural comparisons, as Carey and colleagues point out, is that it isn't just one piece of the country's system that contributes to high achievement; it's the entire way teaching and assessment are structured, not to mention other messier factors (such as cultural attitudes toward teaching, equalized education funding, etc.) For example, although teaching is not extraordinarily highly paid in Finland, it is considered a prestigious and highly respected profession, and only the best of the best in that country become teachers. Here in the U.S., despite some successful efforts to make teaching selective and more exclusive (Teach for America comes to mind), on the whole it still isn't considered prestigious, doesn't routinely attract the smartest college graduates, and--as the career ladder debate shows--doesn't offer much variety in terms of professional opportunities for teachers. (See also my colleague Sean Cavanagh's article on Finland here.)

This does leave some big assessment/teacher quality questions for Obama. It's far from clear that portfolio assessments can be appropriately worked into an accountability system, and I agree with Tom Toch that this will be a big discussion for the next No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization. And despite a lot of attention paid to teacher quality during the campaign, it's equally unclear what Obama's teacher-quality policies will look like in detail and how they will help make teaching a more respected, professionalized career that attracts better candidates.

The famous choral piece Finlandia, a celebration of that country's national identity, takes 7-1/2 minutes to perform. But it's going to take a lot longer than that for Obama, Duncan, and their aides to figure out how best to learn from the country's successes.


I read Kevin Carey's "musings" as artifical debaters' points, not a serious commentary. For instance, take your summary of Carey's position and substitute the word "accountability" for assessment so it reads, "it isn't just one piece of the country's system that contributes to high achievement; it's the entire way teaching and accountability are structured, not to mention other messier factors (such as cultural attitudes toward teaching, equalized education funding, etc.)

Carey would have a cow, attacking you for "low expectations." Say that in a job interview, Michelle Rhee has said explicitly, and you are not fit to teach in the D.C. schools (although she was magnanimous enough to say that someone who holds that position should be allowed to teach in Montgomery County."

Tom Toch is right. We need a debate. Toch has a long history of embodying the best of scholarly and practical discussions. Carey, however, has a long history of shouting down anyone who challenges his assumption that accountability must be the driving force of reform, not just one important factor.

Finland does have an excellent education system. Finns understand concepts and have a breadth of knowledge and a wealth of curiosity.

Their assessments are not rigid and controlled by academic scholars. Flexibility is the key. That means, when you evaluate the best candidate to teach, you look at the entire person including his or her total knowledge and understanding.

People are not screened out because of test scores, politics, ego or the advice of a well-placed official. It is all about inquiry and skill in the total sense.

Norm--Finland does in fact use test scores as key junctures to screen people. The score on a test is used to determine entry into various upper secondary programs (and as a bow to equity, an additional year of public education is available to those who want to study more and have another crack at it). The score on a graduation test is used to screen applicants on entry into teacher training programs (with successful applicants selected from the top 10% of graduates).

While it is attractive to look at the Finnish commitment to equitable opportunity in a moral sense, perhaps it is more instructive to look at their commitment to the development of young minds as one that views their citizenry as valuable human resource. The various tests administered to a sampling of students are used to evaluate things like curriculum and teaching--in order to bring about improvements in education. We rather stubbornly cling to a belief that these things are already as good as they can be (without more money or a better class of students).

Certainly those opposed to testing, or the various uses of testing, can bang away at the ways that the Finns differ in that arena, but the reality is that on the one test where we have comparable data (PISA) the Finns are smoking the rest of the world. Maybe their local tests look more like PISA--which measures applications of knowledge and skills, rather than just "factual knowledge." Maybe their ongoing classroom assessments look different than our. But, there is nothing to prevent any state in our union from developing PISA-like tests for NCLB accountability. There is nothing that prevents any school district from developing formative or summative assessment of the type that Darling-Hammond recommends. Nor is there anything to indicate that a move in this direction would result in students less well prepared to pass any of the currently existing tests.

What is more likely is that our less rigorously selected teachers and administrators, graduating from shorter and less intensive preparation programs, possibly less well supported in their positions, just don't know how to do so. If care is taken to place academic scholars in every classroom, it is less important that every move be overseen by academic scholars at some other level.

In looking at the Finns, or other international examples, it is very important to look comprehensively, rather than pulling details in support of the things that we think we would like to see more of here.

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