Editorial | Pay teachers for skill, performance
So far, there is no cause to complain about the tone or reasonableness of Howard Isaacs, the new president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), although, like his recent predecessors, he started with a screed about better pay and working conditions for teachers.
In fact, this newspaper is not opposed to paying teachers more. Except that we do not believe that hikes should necessarily be across the board, or that compensation should be at the same rate for all teachers, regardless of the subjects they teach. Nor do we believe that wage increases, in this circumstance, should be open-ended, without teachers having to give something in return.
The context of this latest round of discussion about teachers' pay is, as is often the case, reports of an exodus of qualified teachers from classrooms, followed by worsening education outcomes. Most of the teachers who leave the profession, according to anecdotal evidence, go abroad. Some take up jobs in the domestic private sector.
"We recognise that it is not possible for Government to match the size in salary offered in those overseas markets. However, a concerted effort must be made to review the salaries and conditions of work for teachers," Mr Isaacs said in his inaugural address as head of the teachers' union this week.
However, the problem of the quality of teaching in Jamaica's education system is not uniform. It is worse in mathematics and the sciences. Their outcomes, at all levels, lag behind other subjects. Moreover, qualified maths and science teachers are not only harder to replace, but in mathematics especially, they appear to be leaving faster than they can be recruited.
Indeed, in the two years up to the end of 2015, more than 240 maths instructors, accounting for around half of the science-related teachers who left, resigned from Jamaica's public schools. Most of them had university degrees. There are only around 300 trained maths teachers in the system, well below the required number. This shortage of quality and qualified maths instructors shows in the poor performance of Jamaican students in the subject, including this year's 14 percentage-point decline in passes at the Caribbean Examinations Council's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams.
Last October, the former education minister, Ronald Thwaites, rightly proposed a market-based approach to this problem: providing incentives to recruit and keep in the classrooms these teachers who are in high demand elsewhere. But he quickly backed away from the idea of differential pay, in part, we suspect, because a supply-and-demand compensation equation wouldn't find favour with the JTA.
Mr Thwaites' counter-strategy of recruiting maths/science-inclined young people and providing them with scholarships in exchange for taking up teaching jobs on graduation appears not to have got off the ground.
Now, Mr Isaacs has warned Mr Thwaites' successor, Ruel Reid, to tread carefully with special incentives. Mr Isaacs' measured cadence notwithstanding, it seems obvious that the JTA is holding to its old position of across-the-board pay rates. That is wrong. People ought to be compensated for special skills, influenced by the demands of the market.
Further, especially in a situation where there is little money to throw about, pay, including teachers' remuneration, should be linked to performance. It is not beyond us to design appropriate systems to measure this. Hopefully, this is an idea to which the JTA, under Mr Isaacs' leadership, will warm.