Another Argument for Acting Like Finland
If you follow my posts you know I spend a lot of time talking about teacher quality and teacher evaluations. So I was somewhat flummoxed by a paper put out by The New Teaching Project (TNTP) that says as a nation we have no idea of what kinds of professional development help teachers improve their practice. This got me thinking about a very common debate: why doesn't the American education system model itself after Finland's education system? I must confess that as I started my research on Finland's education system I did so with a huge bias, we shouldn't even try. But as I began researching the Finnish education system I started to realize there are some things that Finland is doing that maybe we, educators and policymakers of the U.S., should ponder and perhaps put into practice.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge some profound differences between the U.S. and Finnish education systems. First of all, Finland is a very homogenous society, meaning almost everyone living in Finland is Finnish. Only around six percent of the population is from another country. (My apologies to any Swedes living in Finland I counted you as Finnish). Another profound difference between US teachers and Finnish teachers is teacher training and preparation.
Finnish preparation programs are superior in many ways. For example, the number of years spent preparing to teach or how it balances between actual classroom practice and time spent studying pedagogy. Yet another difference is the investment Finland makes in children long before they start school. Finnish mothers are given up to three years of paid maternity leave. Then there is the national daycare program provided for young children. Finally, when children reach the age 6, they go to preschool for a year and elementary school the following year. Lastly, and the one thing that many pro Finnish education supporters love to point out, there is no standardized testing! Students in Finland do take one standardized test, when they turn sixteen. This test decides where they will go for the rest of their education and puts them on track for their future career. (I am oversimplifying it, but if you would like to know more check out this pamphlet from Finland, "Finnish Education in a Nutshell.")
However, the lack of standardized testing in Finland does not mean assessment is not happening. One might even argue that given the high degree of teacher autonomy in Finland there might be more assessment happening than in your average U.S. classroom. (Teachers can pick their own curriculum to teach based on national standards, schools sites decide on class-sizes based on their budgets, etc. You can find out more in these two articles, "Happy Teaching, Happy Learning: 13 Secrets to Finland's Success" and "Highly Trained Respected and Free: Why Finland's Teachers Are Different.") One thing that Finnish teacher preparation experts like to point out is that they are training teachers to be fluent in student data to drive their instructional decisions.
Not only is teacher education in Finland strongly research-based, but all the students on the primary school master's course are engaged in research themselves - a point of pride for Patrik Scheinin, dean of the faculty. The course aims to produce "didacticians" who can connect teaching interventions with sound evidence, he says ("Highly Trained Respected and Free: Why Finland's Teachers Are Different").
Are teachers in the United States ready to be researchers and didacticians? Are state policymakers ready to live by one set of national standards? Are district officials ready to let classroom teachers create their own curriculum and design their own assessments for that curriculum? I think one problem right now in America with our current assessment system and the role it plays in education is how little control teachers are given over their own classrooms. Perhaps if we were to give teachers the training and the autonomy like Finnish teachers get, we would see less of a need for standardized testing and more authentic assessment happening.