Thanks for this very useful post, Halsey.
I thought your advice in the last sentence was very sensible:
>> We should continue to cast our nets widely for other lessons on successful policies and interventions.
Indeed, we should cast our nets widely both geographically *and* temporally. You mention in your post that Finland embarked on a comprehensive reform of its education system in the 1970s. I find that many people look at the places that are high in the PISA league tables *today* and make a simple equation between what those places are doing *today* and their PISA scores *today*.
In the Finnish case, many people point to things like 'good teacher selection and preparation' (which you of course mention in your post) as important factors behind the 'Finnish success'. Let's stipulate, for our purposes here, that this linkage is indeed correct. Even if we accept this 'lesson' (which seems rather reasonable to me), it is important to note that the way Finland selects and prepares its teachers in 2013 is a result of the accretion of changes and results that have occurred over decades, in response to specific contexts and challenges there. Now, whether or not these contexts and challenges were unique to Finland, I don't know (some probably are/were, some not.) But simply saying that Finland = good teacher selection & preparation -> good PISA scores (which is the message that one hears repeated time and again) really isn't terribly useful for policymakers today. (I know that you aren't saying something this simplistic, Halsey -- but lots of other folks sure seem to be!)
How was Finland able to increase selectivity and improve preparation, beginning with the reforms that started almost four decades ago? What worked, what didn't, and how did they know the difference? Answers to those sorts of questions are a bit more complicated, and fuzzy, and perhaps don't lend themselves as readily to the soundbites of politicians and reporters who offer up the PowerPoint-friendly advice that 'you need to be more selective in who enters the teacher profession, just like Finland is' -- but they might be more valuable to policymakers in the end.