Editorial | In need of PEP mea culpa
As we pointed out in these columns nearly five years ago, nothing impacts a child’s learning, once in school, more than the quality of teachers and teaching to which he or she is subjected.
Indeed, we, at the time, alluded to a World Bank study that showed that “students with the best teachers advance 1.5 grade levels or more a years, while those with the worst teachers master 0.5 year of curriculum or less”. That is a clear argument for teachers to be held accountable.
But it is argument, too, for teachers to be well trained, properly prepared and in full mastery of the curricula which they are called upon to impart to students. As last week’s results of the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams for Jamaica’s grade-six students confirmed, as sensible people were fully aware would be the case, the island’s teachers were, by and large, woefully ill equipped with the pedagogic skills to prepare their 11- and 12-year-old charges for these tests.
Indeed, of the more than 41,000 children who sat the exams, 59 per cent were not proficient in mathematics, when proficiency required a grade of between 50 and 79 per cent. Half didn’t make the cut in science, which was also the case for 37 per cent of the students in social studies and 45 per cent in language arts.
In other words, large swathes of students will enter high school in need of remedial attention. Yet, the scale of this problem isn’t readily assessable since the education ministry hasn’t released the percentage scores for specific students or the numbers that fall within particular points of the scale.
Opacity leaves you better able to fudge, or question, a claim such as the one by Winnie Berry, the chief education officer, that the results are far less than dismal. She has gone so far as to argue that they are good.
This newspaper doesn’t claim that these results are particularly worse than what has obtained in Jamaica’s education system for many decades. But the introduction of a new standard curriculum at the primary level, and PEP itself, was to mark a shift in paradigm. It was aimed at encouraging critical thinking among matriculating students for a 21st-century world.
The bottom line, however, as the facilitators at a workshop last October at teacher-training institution The Mico University College reported, is that teachers believed that they lacked the skills to teach in accordance to the new curriculum. Many felt that they, themselves, fell short in critical thinking. Moreover, many teachers claimed not to have had access to the new curriculum until late in the day, or to have had training in its delivery.
Rational voices called for the postponement of PEP’s introduction and for it to be phased in, possibly over two or three years. The self-aggrandising, and now disgraced, former education minister, Ruel Reid, probably in search of a legacy, insisted on pushing through the tests, except for a delay by three months of one facet of school-based assessment.
The argument of Mr Reid, and some of his technocrats, was that PEP had been in preparation for a long time, predating his arrival at the ministry. They reeled off the number of stakeholder meetings that were held and training workshops for teachers arranged, many of which were poorly attended. In the end, there was a mad scramble by teachers and principals to catch up.
This newspaper has often complained of the unwillingness of teachers and their union to be held accountable and to be rewarded based on performance. At the same time, being held to account isn’t the responsibility of teachers. School governors and their ministry have the authority for oversight.
In any event, the future of Jamaica’s teachers can’t be held to ransom because overlords feel they are vindicated by being able to point an accusatory finger at teachers. Having made a mess of this first PEP, the education ministry has to do a mea culpa and be transparent with education stakeholders in pulling themselves out of this hole to avoid a deeper crisis in the future.
They should also place a gag on Mrs Berry.