I agree with most of your sentiments, Oceana.
This is gonna be a long response, but I think it will help point out a lot of flaws in our system.
For textbooks, the thing we found the most obnoxious was that with all the digital printing possibilities nowadays, the textbook industry seems to be lagging behind. We questioned several companies on the idea of a custom printing or a digital version of the text, and none of them are there yet. Instead, the textbooks we went with are $92 per student, which is one of the most expensive books my school carries right now. And there weren't really any significantly cheaper options.
As far as copying another country, much of it is beyond our ability to fix with quick fixes.
From reading up on this a bit just now, here are a few of the tidbits I've found from various sources, with the primary source being this article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/...59555/?no-ist=&page=2
1) Their politics don't revolve around education at all. Both more conservative and more liberal parts of their political spectrum buy in to the same educational plan, so teachers don't become the target of political games.
2) They draw their teachers from the top 10% and all of them have Master's in Education degrees.
3) They focus on individuals and not statistics, and they don't try to use competition or free market attitudes in their education system, something both Republicans (with charter schools) and Democrats (with Race to the Top) have embraced.
4) The differences between their richest and poorest schools are minimal (this is big, I'll explain below).
5) At least from what they say, they don't focus on testing at all and don't teach to the test, they just have effective standards that are applied across the board and their testing success is actually authentic in the sense that it's not just that they're good at a test.
6) Their teachers focus more on the development of their curriculum and fewer hours actually in the classroom (I've got some questions about this as well--below)
7) Their safety nets and social programs are plentiful: they provide everything from subsidized daycare to taxi services to free health care for children, so the article claims there are rarely instances of children coming to school hungry or being homeless, or being late due to no rides, etc.
8) There are also significant differences in the make up of the country. Finland is a country of 5.4 million people and only 4% are foreign born.
For #6, I was curious about teacher to student ratio, and found that by the site I found, we're right in line with Finland, having a 14:1 ratio, but I wondered if this is per class or if this truly is overall. Also, I think the reason the U.S. is at such a ratio is probably partially due to rural schools and charter schools that drive the numbers down. And if this number really reflects more of an average class size, if Finland focuses more on curriculum development, they may still have a far better ratio. I don't know if this is the case because from a quick glance, I couldn't find anything about the procedures for figuring the ratio.
The other two I think are worth bringing up are #4 and #7, in conjunction. Schools in the U.S. are most often funded via local property tax funds, which means there's more money where property taxes are higher. For instance, in Illinois, there are schools in the wealthy Chicago suburbs where the average teacher salary is upwards of $70,000, whereas downstate salaries are nowhere near that (one district that I chose as a rural mid-state comparison had teacher salary just a touch over $40,000 in comparison).
So basically, many young teachers work in districts where they're building up experience and credentials, then they try to get a job at wealthier districts (and who can blame them?) where both pay and work conditions are better.
These districts are also the ones with more money to throw into other programs, and obviously (in connection with the property taxes) are home to families that are more affluent and put more importance on education.
This leads to a vast difference in educational opportunities when you look at the difference between inner-city schools of Chicago and schools like New Trier in Winnetka (one of the richest suburbs). It ends up being a social construct that helps maintain the status quo--students that went through rich schools get the best teachers and the most program offerings, whereas students that go through poor schools often get teachers who are new to the profession or aren't the most talented teachers, and that have fewer offerings.
I'd argue that the best 10% of schools in the U.S. can probably compete with the top schools in other countries that rank higher than us in PISA testing. But when it comes to the less successful schools, there are a vast number of issues that prevent them from having the same success. Some of that probably comes from our higher rate of immigration. Some of that comes from issues like homelessness and poverty. Some of that comes from our obsession with test scores. Some of it comes from the prestige that is attached to teaching and the political games (or lack thereof) that are played with groups like teachers which can erode the respect people have for teachers. Some of it comes from the time educators are given to spend on curriculum (and probably from a greater sense of accountability for those teachers once they are given extra time).
It's also that no fix will be immediate. It's quite possible that Common Core IS the answer, but that we wouldn't know it for 10 years or more, because teachers need a chance to become adept in the new things they want us to do, and students have to have the opportunity to go through the entire system to see the maximum benefits (meaning when 1st graders now are taking the 11th grade test, THAT'S when we can tell for sure).
I know that's a super long response to why we can't just copy and paste the ideas of FInland, and I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't try to understand their success, but I don't want it to seem like teachers haven't thought of this as well.