What the V.I. Education System Could Be

In the early 1960s, Finland was in a dire economic situation. The leaders of Finland realized a strong education program was the key to economic opportunity. Finland realized to improve their country’s standing they had to educate all their people.
Today Finland is largely recognized as the leader in education programs. It did not happen over night but was executed over decades with a steady course.
The Finns do not throw a lot of money at education; in fact they spend 30% per student less than the United States. They do not mandate this or that, they provide guidelines to schools and leave the implementation to principals and teachers at individual schools. Testing is not the foundation of their education program. It’s only the PISA test results that have determined the Finnish program to be at the top. According to Pasi Sahlberg of the Finland Ministry of Education and Culture, "We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test."
Education is more than testing high. Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal, states, "If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect." According to Linda Darling-Hammond, Finland was once poorly ranked educationally, with a turgid bureaucratic system that produced low-quality education and inequalities (does that sound like the V.I.?) Now the country boasts a highly equitable distribution of achievement." The Finns focus on educating all their residents not just a select few in a couple of schools.
What they do:
Value teachers as the top of society; teachers are recruited from the top 10% of the graduating classes from universities. Many have advanced degrees. And they pay them well and provide extensive training to educate them how to teach and how to think creatively.
People in Finland trust their teachers and empower their principals and teachers to do what it takes to educate a student. No student is ignored in the classroom. If individual tutoring is required, such is done; if a student needs to be held back, the parents support the teachers’ decision. Emotional, academic and health care help is provided to all students.
Standards are set high and they go after them. The Finnish standards are not lowered to meet some artificial test score. Raise the bar and expectations of students and they will exceed them. If one expects less, they will receive less.
If techniques and programs fail, they try new methods. They are always seeking to improve (the growth mindset).
Music and visual arts are incorporated into the curriculum, for music in early childhood helps develop linguistic capacities. Play is valued. School and learning should be enjoyable, not a burden. Much is learned from athletic activities.
Students are required to learn at least two languages. More than 50% of the adult population in Finland participates in adult education, because education never stops.
It took Finland 40 years to see the fruits of their efforts, but the rewards have been substantial. Many of the above items can be implemented in the Virgin Islands. For Finland individual learning is the foundation. Teachers are trained to focus on how to teach students who learn by different methods. At VIMSIA, our analogy is that teachers have a quiver on their back with numerous teaching skill arrows in it. Dedicated teachers must keep pulling out skill arrows until they find the right one for each and every student. Some students may only need one arrow; others may need 50 arrows before you find the right skill that reaches the students’ learning abilities. Teachers collaborate to develop teaching methods and curricula, and incorporate parent cooperation.
The socialist programs, which are a part of the Finnish life, cannot be incorporated into our society, but other methods can be implemented to obtain high education and economic results. The Finns have lengthy family leave programs to facilitate parental education early in life as part of their social structure. In the VI, we can improve the quality and access to 0 to 6 year old education. It’s a scientific fact that the early learning ages of 0 to 6 are critical to a child’s development.
South Korea: on the other side of the world, South Korea has also developed a top rated education program on the other side of the spectrum…absolute control and mandated discipline. Education is considered the primary means to improve the country’s economic standing. They study year round, failure is not an option, hard work and perseverance is required. There is no attempt to make education enjoyable; it’s a question of paying the price early on in life, to reap the benefits later via a better career. The Koreans spend more per capital on education than the US. Teachers make 25% more than their US counterparts.
Korean students study nearly around the clock for12 months a year. Parents sacrifice resources for their student’s education. Testing is the core of the Korean system. The system is very technologically driven. Teaching is the top career choice; teachers are highly regarded and are paid very well. Teacher training is continuous; they are always improving teaching methods, not stuck in traditional ways. Parents are involved and teachers are always inspiring students to do better. Expectations are high.
Both countries realize a bright future is a function of quality education; both have quality education systems and sound economies, yet their education measures are not similar. Both Finland and South Korea have had a commitment to quality education as the foundation of their countries. The Virgin Islands need not replicate any of the specific programs of either of these two countries; what is critically important is adopting the two commonalities: make quality education the top priority and hire the best people as teachers, pay them well, and train them to the max.
Suggestions for the VI:
• Hire talented people to teach and pay them appropriately; provide extensive professional development programs and raise the quality of teachers.
• Improve early childhood programs from ages 0 to 6 and promote attendance.
• Educate and empower teachers and principals to establish high standards and methods.
Keep in mind; a successful education program requires the parent, the teacher and the student to work collaboratively. There can be no Finnish or Korean style turnaround in VI education without all parties coming together to agree on the commitment of education. The viable future of the Virgin Islands will be determined by the quality of our education system for everyone…not a select few.
Editor’s note: Michael Bornn is the head of school at VI Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy (VIMSIA), St. Thomas. He is a native Virgin Islander with over 25 years in operational leadership and financial management experience. He attended All Saints Cathedral School and is a graduate of Culver Military Academy; Georgetown University, B.A. Economics; and Chase Manhattan’s prestigious Credit and Financial Program. He served five years as president of Virgin Islands Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy, a school with two internationally recognized curricula, Montessori and International Baccalaureate Program.
 

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