Editorial: The GSAT debate and teachers’ pay
Quite fortuitously, a public debate has broken out over what has proved to be a misinterpretation of the breadth of Ronnie Thwaites' plan to this year place grade seven students in high schools near to where they live.
What was thought to be the education minister's intent, understandably, caused an outcry among many parents. Their assumption was that their children would end up in poor, or even failing, schools no matter how they performed in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT).
This reaction is appreciated in the context of the Jamaican education system, especially at the high-school level. There are pockets of excellence, but the bulk of it is mediocre to poor. So, getting into a good high school is a jostle and lottery, starting with the primary school attended by the students. The students with the best chance of placement in the top institutions are those who attend the private preparatory schools, or the handful of good primary schools.
high demand for premium schools
Further, because the quality high-school space is at a premium and demand is high, GSAT is marked at the curve, with the top-performing students getting into schools of their choice, or any of four others listed in descending order, based on their test scores. It is those who don't make it to any of their five top choices, or about 25 per cent of the cohort, it has emerged, to whom Mr Thwaites' policy will apply.
In the past, these students might be arbitrarily assigned to a high school by some computer programme. But this year, they, insofar as possible, will be manually placed in schools closest to their homes, in an effort, the education ministry says, to reduce to around 20 per cent frequent absenteeism in Jamaican high schools.
That, on the face of it, is a good thing. But parents have good cause for concern. They know, for instance, that the National Education Inspectorate (NEI) has ranked more than half of the island's schools as poor performers, and even among those classified as effective, only a small proportion is in the good to excellent category. Most schools suffer from an absence of quality leadership.
statistically insignificant passes
Indeed, each year, only 20 per cent of Jamaican high-school students pass five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects, inclusive of math and English, in a single sitting. And for a large number of these schools, passes by their students are statistically insignificant. The problem exists not only at the secondary level. At grade four, only 58 per cent of students fully master the requirements for numeracy, and 77 per cent for literacy. At grade three, a mere 37 per cent of boys and 55 per cent of girls read at their age level.
Some of these problems are a reflection of Jamaica's social and economic situation, including the relative wealth of parents and the support they can afford their children's education.
Some of it, though, is the result of institutional encrustation, with which the teaching Establishment has grown comfortable and does not want to change. This is a matter that should be on the agenda as the Jamaica Teachers' Association demands a pay hike beyond the five per cent the Government originally had on the table.
We would support an increase beyond that level if the additional amount is performance-based pay, tied to the educational outcomes of schools and teachers.