So why Finland?
During my initial research, a crucial difference emerged between Finnish Education and American Education: the breadth and influence of political agenda in education. In America, too often the agents of change are policy makers, not practitioners. Take assessment for example, American schools continuously outsource standardized student testing and increasingly practice arduous inspections of schools and teachers in order to comply with mandated legislation. Political proponents of standardized testing claim that such assessments serve as a measure to bridge achievement gaps, hold schools accountable, help communities identify failing students (and teachers!) and dictate the allocation of funding. The fact that private constituents, such as the corporations that manufacture and grade the tests reap enormous profits from such a practice is just one indicator that the politicians that drive these agendas may have ulterior motives. One unintended result of the overuse of standardized tests in the American school system is the implication that teachers are not capable enough to use their own student data to assess student progress in their classrooms.
The Finnish educational system, on the other hand, relies on the professionalism and competency of educated teachers who are intrinsically motivated by their commitment to both their students and their school communities. Teachers, who are considered pedagogical experts, are trusted with student assessment, which usually draws on students’ class work, projects, teacher-made exams, and portfolios. Teacher-based assessment, then, takes a prominent role because students are not assessed by national tests or examinations. When studying to be a teacher, a comprehensive teacher prep curriculum ensures that “newly prepared Finnish teachers possess balanced knowledge and skills in both theory and practice.”[i] Pre-service teachers are taught that a successful teaching practice reflects systemic, school-wide efforts. Educational theories, methodologies and practice are critical components of teacher training and practice, reinforcing the country’s commitment to research-based teacher education.
One obvious question arose from this comparison: do we trust American teachers as educated professionals, capable of doing their jobs? The answer to this is implicit in how we treat assessment in this country…and assessment is only one small component; do we trust teachers to be accountable for sound pedagogical content, delivery, and curriculum development, without being constantly measured and regulated? How do we move towards a system of educational thinking based on a shared examination of practices, cooperation, mutuality and reciprocity? This research is beginning to provoke more questions than answers…but maybe this is a good starting point…