Ronald Thwaites | To really fix education
In our system, the grade-four literacy and numeracy tests will tell you how most children will do during the rest of their school experience. This is because a satisfactory competence in standard English and mathematics is the absolute fundamentals of all higher learning and training.
There is a dangerously sleazy argument going around now that even if you never managed these two core subjects, skill training will set you up anyway. That is a half-truth that will, at best, keep us in a low-skilled, low-wage economic mode for generations.
Check the frightening declaration of Davon Crump, the BPO employer in last Saturday's Gleaner: "At the high-school level, more than 50 per cent of all new graduates are inadequately prepared in the most important skills necessary to be successful on the job, such as oral and written communication, professionalism, work ethic, punctuality and attendance and critical thinking and problem solving."
On reflection, the grade-four exit test should include a test for social capacities and civic awareness, as well as an introduction to digital ability. And the English examination must have an oral component, too.
Impossible for some who are lazy and complacent to comprehend, the grade-four exams should get progressively more demanding, as higher standards will be required of our workers and producers, whether we are here or abroad.
So how well are we performing towards these ends?
The recently published grade-four results have received far less attention and analysis than their importance deserves. For while there have been modest improvements in literacy, there are still 15 per cent or more of our children who do not achieve mastery, and brushing 40 per cent who fall short of the already-rudimentary standards in mathematics.
These are the young persons who are headed straight for low outcomes at the end of primary school; often the same ones who attend irregularly, develop behavioural problems, with some eventually dropping out of school or 'graduating' without certification.
I have been touring some primary schools with poor or indifferent grade-four performances to see what is needed to achieve better results. Here is one typical case.
Daily attendance fluctuates between 75 and 85 per cent of enrolment. The reasons for absence, especially on Fridays, range from no bus fare, no lunch money, "mi madda sen' mi out" or "she seh no badda come today". The waste of a day absent from school is still not highly appreciated.
In this school, the grade-four teachers report that only one-third of their students habitually do homework and only half came into their grade cognitively, emotionally and socially ready for this higher standard.
The same teachers and their principal, all well-trained, dedicated and, in two instances, professionally acclaimed, report having to spend up to 40 per cent of class time trying to keep order, to induce children to stop talking, and to attract their sustained attention.
In all of the schools visited, teachers volunteer for after-school and Saturday classes for weak learners that are often poorly attended. When asked to contribute small sums for refreshment or materials, the response from too many, other than the dedicated 25 per cent of parents, is often, "Yu no hear seh Govament seh wi no fi pay nuttin."
Folly and cruelty
Promotion of underachieving students without satisfactory remediation is both folly and cruelty to all concerned. All we are doing is cascading the problem to the higher grades and, ultimately, to the national scene. This is behind Jamaica's low-wage and youth unemployment reality, at the root of anaemic economic growth and rampant social distress.
The stipulation that everyone must attain mastery at the grade-four level before sitting GSAT is not rigorously enforced, and, in any event, the time expended on catch-up in grades five and six invariably yields poor terminal results.
The expensive emphasis on career advancememt and novel high-school college credit programmes are all good but cannot be founded on prior weakness in written and spoken English, mathematics, computer competence and strong character formation. These creditable efforts at expanding tertiary opportunities often are compromised by the inadequate matriculation standards of entering candidates.
We end up adding billions to the already bloated invoice for extra lessons or become satisfied with lower-than-global standards for our graduates.
For, trust me, many of those of whom Mr Crump speaks are sporting CSEC passes and, more horrible to confront, even tertiary 'qualifications'.
We need to invest at least as much on early-stimulation and early-grade education as we do on the higher reaches.
Who will join in an urgent national discourse, bipartisan, inclusive and sustained on quality education for all and not only for some?
- Ronald Thwaites is opposition spokesman on education and training and member of parliament for Kingston Central.