Sat | Dec 14, 2019

Editorial | Here’s an opportunity, Mr Speid

Published:Thursday | November 21, 2019 | 12:07 AM

Owen Speid should avoid becoming the latest president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) who spends his time tilting at windmills, while avoiding the gritty job of finding, and implementing, ideas for fixing Jamaica’s education system, which would include telling his members uncomfortable truths.

Essentially, the JTA has evolved into a trade union, representing more than 20,000 teachers, who work in nearly 1,000 public schools. In recent decades, the profession has suffered a high turnover. Many of its members are poached to teach abroad, especially in Britain and the United States.

In a speech at the association’s half-yearly meeting, Mr Speid, who, substantively, is principal of a primary school, said that the exodus is continuing. Like his predecessors, he paraded the JTA’s usual suspects for the cause – low pay, and the bad policies of recent education ministers, especially Ruel Reid and Ronald Thwaites.

This newspaper, of course, holds no brief for either. Mr Reid, who was forced from his job earlier this year in the midst of a scandal, was called out for arrogantly referring to principals as ‘extortionists’ for attempting to have parents contribute to their children’s education. There, too, was our criticism of his folly of declaring an end to “auxiliary fees”, although, even with increased allocations from the Government, many schools couldn’t cover their budgets. Eventually, auxiliary fees morphed into “voluntary contributions”. Damage, though, was done.

But, the auxiliary fee hiccup and his overeager roll-out of a new assessment system for grade-six students notwithstanding, Mr Reid was more correctly caricatured for his pomposity than for any lasting defacement of education caused by immediate policy. In last week’s speech, Mr Speid offered no robust analysis or overarching policy.

Despite his silly, and clearly juvenile, mischaracterisation of Ronald Thwaites as “demon”, rather than “deacon”, which he attempted to pass off as whimsy, the JTA president was, on the face of it, more substantive in his critique of Mr Thwaites. He argued that Mr Thwaites, the minister from 2012 to 2016, had claimed that there were too many teachers in the system, had urged teachers’ colleges to reduce their intake of students, and advised presumed surplus teachers to seek jobs elsewhere, other than in classrooms.

Others, however, recall a more complex and nuanced offering by the former minister, including his concern for an oversupply of teachers in a few subjects, a severe shortage in critical areas, and of rules that made it almost impossible to transfer teachers across schools, so as to better match skills with needs.

The Education system

Perchance Mr Speid’s observations were accurate, he is in a position to begin a national debate, leading, hopefully, to a policy reset that ends the generation of “dysfunctional graduates”, too many of whom, he concedes, are the outcomes of Jamaica’s education system. Indeed, up to a third of grade-six students aren’t ready for high school, and no more than a fifth of students complete their five years of secondary education unable to matriculate to university education, having not passed at least five subjects at a single sitting, inclusive of math and English, at the Caribbean Examination Council’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CESEC) exams. Indeed, throughout their time in school, most Jamaican students struggle with English, math and other science subjects.

Curiously, neither Mr Speid nor his predecessors have admitted that any responsibility for these outcomes rests with teachers, even as they insist on increased wages. There is no question that a salary of less than J$3 million a year for a university-educated and trained mid-career high-school teacher is not particularly enticing. Except when viewed in the context a low-wage economy, with low labour productivity, where the Government’s ability to pay is hindered by serious fiscal constraints.

There are creative ways around this problem, which the JTA has, in the past, refused to countenance, and which Mr Speid should now seriously consider. He should persuade his members of the good sense, and efficacy, of performance-based remuneration, at the level of schools and individuals, tied to agreed educational and related outcomes. It can’t be beyond us to design such a system.