The highlight of my trip was visiting schools in Finland. Of course, Finland is much in the news these days because of its success on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) examinations. For the past decade, 15-year-old Finnish students have consistently been at or near the top of all the nations tested in reading, mathematics, and science. And just as consistently, the variance in quality among Finnish schools is the least of all nations tested, meaning that Finnish students can get a good education in virtually any school in the nation. That's equality of educational opportunity, a good public school in every neighborhood.
What makes the Finnish school system so amazing is that Finnish students never take a standardized test until their last year of high school, when they take a matriculation examination for college admission. Their own teachers design their tests, so teachers know how their students are doing and what they need. There is a national curriculum—broad guidelines to assure that all students have a full education—but it is not prescriptive. Teachers have extensive responsibility for designing curriculum and pedagogy in their school. They have a large degree of autonomy, because they are professionals.