Editorial: Solving the maths problem
We can only assume that Ronnie Thwaites, the education minister, is profoundly disappointed with the average test score for mathematics in this year's Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), which is used to determine the readiness of Jamaica's children for secondary education. The math score, according to Mr Thwaites, declined by 3.7 percentage points, to 56 per cent, or a slippage of five points over the past two years.
That performance contrasts with the improved outcomes in the four other subjects in which the grade six cohort is tested, including a six percentage point gain in social studies. On the face of it, therefore, several initiatives being employed by Mr Thwaites and his technocrats to lift education standards have delivered successes, even if not at the pace at which most Jamaicans would hope.
Except that Mr Thwaites, rightly, has invested heavily in an improved performance in mathematics competence, in which, he argued in a recent parliamentary debate, "accounts for significant advancement" in a person's life. Unfortunately, Jamaicans have, historically, not done well in the subject.
For instance, although this represented an 18 percentage points increase over two years, only 56 per cent of the Jamaican students who, last year, sat mathematics in the Caribbean Examination Council's Caribbean Secondary Certificate (CSEC) test received passing grades. Put another way, 44 per cent failed.
But even these numbers mask the depth of the problem. In many schools up to half of the grade 11 cohort, for whom the CSEC math should be mandatory, are screened out of the exam. When the entire cohort is taken into account the CSEC pass rate, last year, was a mere 31 per cent. That, though, represented an 11 percentage points advance on the 2012 performance.
These numbers, of course, are what they are, because they are built on a poor foundation - like the fact of this year's GSAT score and the outcome of the Grade 4 test of 2014 when only 58 per cent of nine-year-olds mastered all the basic elements of numeracy. Which brings us to Mr Thwaites' attempted assault on the math problem and the reason for his likely disappointment.
The education ministry, last year, deployed 84 mathematics specialists to help lift teaching standards in schools. That number was only 58 per cent of 146 they wanted to send, but for the shortage of math specialists. But even at that Mr Thwaites might have expected better results. But these, arguably, are still early days.
Mr Thwaites, however, still has a major hurdle to scale. Only 39 per cent of around 700 of math teachers in Jamaica's secondary schools are qualified in the subject. So, it is unlikely that students have access to the best, or even competent, talent. In this regard, we have two suggestions to Minister Thwaites.
The first is for the Government to work with its foreign partners to recruit from abroad, on short-term, and if required rotating basis, retired math/science specialist to teach in Jamaican schools while we train our own. Further, as part of the current public-sector salary negotiations, math and other teachers, their principals and schools, should be offered performance-based incentives that kick-in with improved test scores in the applicable subject. Math, in this context, might enjoy a higher premium.