Ronald Thwaites | The maths and science deficit
At the International Conference on Teachers and Teaching that Jamaica proudly hosted last week in Montego Bay, there was much talk about transforming education to meet the purposes of what is called the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'. Well, whatever that beguiling-sounding phrase ends up meaning, be sure that it will be founded on a heavy competence in mathematics and the physical sciences - two disciplines in very short supply in our school system.
The Jamaica Teaching Council, which masterminded the conference, is one of the few really forward-thinking change agents in the Ministry of Education. Even they do not appear to have a prescription for the maths and science gap. This one is really serious, and, if not remedied, is going to 'colt' all the growth prospects of the economy.
We start with a serious malady called maths phobia. Unlike our Asian competitors, parents and many teachers pass on to students the notion that mathematics is hard and that most people can get by without doing well in this subject. All examination results, from the Grade Four Numeracy Test to GSAT, through CSEC and CAPE, silently testify to this largely self-imposed disability.
Not surprising, because much of the teaching has been terrible - highly abstract and unrelated to real-life measurement. When serving at the Ministry of Education, I was shocked to discover that more than a third of math teachers at the primary level had never passed the subject at the CSEC level. And less than 20 per cent of those teaching at examination level in high schools had the adequate certification in both content and methodology.
Actually, our students do not perform so badly, after all, given the double disability of societal ambivalence towards the subject coupled with weak instruction, especially at the foundation level.
But mathematics is the gateway to the physical and many of the social sciences, too. And whatever else the new world order demands, science will be the key to mastery. Three or so years ago when I last looked, of the 50,000 or so students who entered for CSEC at grade 11, fewer than 5,000 even attempted, let alone passed, a physical science subject. You can't build a sustainable, inclusive, globally competitive economy on such a weak maths and science base.
The response then was to recruit Dr Tamika Benjamin, an excellent mathematics educator from The Mico University College, to spearhead a comprehensive retraining process for in-service teachers of mathematics and to offer some 100 scholarships for aspiring maths teachers at university. That first cohort should be graduating this year. However, current events are likely to overtake these helpful but inadequate measures.
How many of these scholarship recipients will become classroom teachers after all, and how many of the upskilled ones plan to remain? In the next few months, there will be another significant exodus of the better maths and science teachers, mostly to foreign employment and some to local businesses.
Just check the advertisements by schools for non-existent replacements of good quality. Some principals don't know yet that they will be losing some of their experienced staff very soon. Many just go without notice. I am told that the recruiters will even pay off the bonds of the scholarship students, and off they go.
School officials will continue to cope as they have always done - find an unqualified and probably reluctant teacher to 'try' with maths or science, just to have someone with presumed competence in front of each class.
I have heard of one troubled high school with only three qualified maths teachers, no fully equipped science laboratory,
but 17 degreed guidance counsellors, some of whom were being asked to teach maths and science. It can't work.
One immediate and affordable recourse is to transform one of our television channels with islandwide coverage to become a full-time virtual schoolroom. Every school and most homes in Jamaica have a television set. Put the best teachers and facilities before the cameras and transmit excellent lessons, able to be repeated as necessary, to all our classrooms and homework settings. Then watch Merlene Ottey and Donald Quarrie students start to get results like Campion and Immaculate!
Ask the financial sector, engorged with profits, to fund this exercise if they really hope to make long-term revenues; not from extortionate fees and trading in foreign exchange, but from the business ventures that bright and qualified young people will generate.
And this time, let us forego the resistance from entrenched interests in both Government and profession - people who have a problem for every solution and who were approached when this idea was broached not long ago.
But there are other harder things that have to be done. The system of collective bargaining, which offers the same increment to teachers as well as footmen in the public service, makes no sense in the context of scarce skills.
Further, even within the teaching profession, the constipation of promotion, establishment setting, lack of accountability, and the inflexibility of tenure, all encrusted in the arthritic 1980 Code of Regulations, have to be swept away if we really want to redress this systemic deficit.
There is an undebated motion in the House of Representatives calling for targets to be set and new measures implemented to improve outcomes in maths and science. Let us start to talk more about the fundamental building blocks of personal and national development. I can sense the hackles rising.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.