By Stephen Sawchuk — December 29, 2008 2 min read

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.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.

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