Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Solving the maths problem

Published:Monday | September 19, 2016 | 12:00 AM

That is what mathematics is supposed to do: make complicated things simple. But many of us don't see it that way, not because we are dumb but because we are not being taught the subject effectively.

The data do not lie. More than 40 per cent of Jamaica's latest crop of GSAT students entering high school this September scored less than 50 per cent in mathematics. For several, their limited command of English prevented their understanding of the thought processes required to solve the problems. It will take massive effort to overcome their starting challenges.

At the terminal CSEC level, only 47 per cent of entrants - by no means all of the age cohort - passed mathematics. When we last checked, only 230 of the 1,788 teachers of mathematics in our high schools were certifiably competent to do so. That is only 12.8 per cent. And that number has very likely been eroded by out-migration since then.

These data illustrate a national crisis.

I have recited these figures again as part of an urgent effort to make the complicated issue of national development simple. To achieve sustained, equitable individual satisfaction and five per cent GDP growth in four years and continuing, we have to solve the problem of underachievement in mathematics. It will not happen otherwise.


Teachers intrest


Last week, I was honoured to be invited to a press briefing at The Mico University College of the Caribbean Centre of Excellence in Mathematics Teaching Pilot Project. This research effort, in collaboration with the University of Plymouth and facilitated by a grant from Sterling Asset Management, both of which institutions deserve commendation, went into a small sample of Jamaican primary schools, determined the weaknesses in the delivery of maths education, and offered remedial coaching.

Among other causes, they found that many times, the teacher has insufficient grasp of the subject beyond the particular topic of the lesson. They simply did not have the academic background or the passion to 'make complicated things simple' for their students. This, despite the fact that all the teachers are certified competent by the Joint Board of Teacher Education and many would be holders of a university degree.

And the consultant to the project stressed the crucial role of the early-childhood and primary sectors for achieving self-confidence in mathematical concepts, both for students and teachers, to avoid what he called the 'waste of natural talent and the long tail of underachievement'.


Two good results


Two good things emerged from the event. The first is that the teachers who participated in the pilot project are all demonstrably much better maths teachers now, making the point that proven retraining strategies can help and ought to be ramped up nationwide now.

Also, the embrace of the project by The Mico University College presents a locus and a leadership pedigree, provided necessary resources are assured, for in-service professional development as well as standards sharing with all other teacher-training institutions.

This nation needs to accept that universal, effective mathematics education is an essential prerequisite of any growth strategy. Stop postponing discussion on this subject. By 2020, every teacher of mathematics must be appropriately certified and held accountable. Tenure and competence cannot continue to be divorced.

- Ronald Thwaites is opposition spokesperson on education and member of parliament for Central Kingston. Email feedback to