WITH one of the best education systems in the world, Finland is considered the go-to place nowadays for governments and educators elsewhere looking for a replicable model. In 2012, Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss interviewed Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland's Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn about educational change in Finland?, to see what America could learn from Finland.
Finland, with a population of more than five million, can show the US what equal opportunity looks like, he said, but Americans cannot achieve equity without making systemic changes in school funding, the well-being of children, and education as a human right.
Finnish schools are funded on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to every school. By law, every child has access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and preschool in their own communities; and every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness. Education is free from preschool to university. "As long as these conditions don't exist, the Finnish equality-based model bears little relevance in the United States," Sahlberg said.
Equally, our social conditions bear no resemblance to Finland. They more closely resemble the US, where there are huge wealth gaps correlated to race, gender, and ethnicity, but without some of the corrective measures. African Americans and other blacks, impacted by slavery and segregation, and Latinos, marginalised by language and their status as recent immigrants, are at the bottom of the social structure.
Finland also does not administer standardised tests, except for small samples, and there is no external school inspectorate. The society places a high level of trust in teachers, whose status in the society are the same as lawyers or doctors, Sahlberg said.
We place low value on teachers and our education system is less rational. Social cohesion is an important goal of education, for example, but we emphasise competition rather than collaboration along with measures of success unattainable to the masses. While those at the top flaunt their successes, those at the bottom have a different measure of success, and it finds expressions in ways that compound their circumstances and make life less pleasant for everyone.
There is a need for a philosophical framework to give form, direction, and meaning to the Jamaican education system. This would be important at any other time, but more so as we battle economic stagnation and social blight, the confusion of globalisation, and the prevalence of communication technology, which themselves need to be understood and used in context. It would be interesting, for example, to understand the thinking behind giving tablets to schoolchildren, even at the primary level. What educational goals do we wish to achieve? What are the guidelines governing their use and how are they evaluated?
While the qualitative component remains fuzzy, the quantative component is not. There is a clear commitment to have every school-aged child in school at the primary level, where the goal is to pass the Grade Six Achievement Test with the highest score, guaranteeing a place in their school of choice; usually one of the pre-Independence grammar schools, post-Independence schools have no standing in the national psyche. At the secondary level, the goal is to pass as many CXC/CSEC subjects in one sitting at grade one.
The deliberation of what education (or an educated person) is that should have happened at Independence, and which Prime Minister Michael Manley attempted after 1972, needs to happen now — around a relevant philosophy of education, resource equity, and a curriculum suitable to domestic needs and global realities.
The word education comes from the Latin word education, meaning breeding, bringing up, or rearing; the process by which individuals are taught proper social conduct and the norms and values of their culture. Much of Asian society is influenced by the thinking of ancient sages, such as Confucianism, which focuses on the family, believes human beings are "teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour", and stresses the cultivation of virtue and ethics.
On the question of funding, while allocation may be equal now, some schools have such a head start that others will never be able to catch up without deliberate actions by the State. This too should be a policy imperative for the Ministry of Education. In the meantime, the results that we get in the counting game are hardly measures of innovation or competence on the one hand, or a lack on the other; they are largely measures of disparity and inequality and a state of mind which measures the value of education by the number of subjects passed, even when a good 50 per cent of those exams may not be necessary.
A relevant curriculum, meanwhile, should be infused with instructions in morality and ethics, through play and stories in early childhood, to core courses at the secondary level. It should also reflect a formula to determine what percentage of what skills or competencies we need now and for the long-term. Every society needs skilled workers, professionals, artistes and intellectuals. The question is, in what proportion? And, how do we orient our thinking from equating skilled work with low status? Post-high school, we need a mandatory gap year for military training and community service, focused on discipline and social integration.
In my research, I came across St Andrew High School for Girls' Mission Statement: "To provide... education for our students in a Christian environment...to equip them with healthy bodies, well trained minds, religious principles and ideals to serve their country as disciplined citizens, to enable them to earn a living, and to live a life more abundant."
Add an explicit statement about responsibility to each other and the environment, and include or exclude the part about Christianity. Either way, a mission thus framed and adhered to lays the foundation for the kind of citizens our education system ought to be producing.
This is the essence of education.
Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org