Martin Henry | Let’s groom them, not cream them
Dr Dennis Minott is quite right that schools and teachers debarring some students from sitting external examinations is ruthless, open to corruption, anti-child, and "slaughters" the hopes of too many Jamaican children.
Minott, who has distinguished himself in preparing 'bright' students for elite universities abroad, if not in politics, was responding to the President of the Jamaica Association of Principals and Vice-Principals, Linton Weir, who was himself objecting to the practice of creaming. Weir has described the practice as discrimination and has called on schools to register all students to sit external exams.
Minott goes further. He wants Government to make culling a criminal act. The Observer thought the matter big enough to pull it up from a letter to the editor to its front-page story last Tuesday (August 30).
September morning is here, and some 35,000 students are entering high school. If current trends continue, around 24,000 of them will sit CSEC exams in five years, ranging from a couple of subjects to the 10s and 11s that Minott works with at his scholarship factory, A-Quest. What becomes of those other 11,000 students?
Furthermore, only a little better than a third (37 per cent) of those who do sit CSEC sit enough and pass enough to have the five subjects, including English and mathematics, required for entry into tertiary education. If five subjects, including English and maths, are considered as the minimum performance for successful completion of high school, as should be the case, then using my little GCE O' Level maths and taking into account those who did not sit at all (approximately one-third of the cohort) and those who, having sat, passed fewer than five subjects (approximately two-thirds of the cohort), ONLY 25 per cent, just a quarter of cohort, have really satisfactorily completed a high school education after five years of government and family investments. It's a travesty. It's a disaster.
Killing culling won't, of course, reverse this disaster. But Minott and Weir, who heads Old Harbour High, an upgraded high school, have a point. Creaming, culling denies students, many of them quite weak coming out of primary education, the very thing they go to high school and spend five years there for: The opportunity to sit and pass external exams. There must be a better way. And teachers and schools certainly should not be left undisturbed in having their way with the lives and future of their students with this practice whether for malice at one end or glory at the other.
We focus too heavily on student performance and don't pay enough attention to teacher and school performance. The education system from early childhood to tertiary now has robust systems of assessment running through it and the ICT capacity to drill down to the performance of individual teachers and individual schools. I have been pushing from day one of the National Assessment Programme (NAP) at the end of the '90s that the NAP data generated should be used to also assess teachers and schools.
With all the system's flaws and shortfalls, including weak students and weak budgets, the business of the high schools is to groom students for external examinations as their launching pad into further education or into entry-level work. Each school must devise a strategy to deliver on this, which may include stopping at the start to get their entrants literate and numerate. With the data available, we can compare apples to apples and mangoes to mangoes to see who is doing better and who is doing worse at this. And the public should know, with parental and student options to choose the more successful schools.
The Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL), JAMAL's offspring, is graduating its first cohort of adult students who were successful in five CSEC subjects under its new High School Diploma Equivalency Programme. Remember HISEP, the predecessor High School Equivalency Programme that fizzled? But a high school diploma equivalency is something of a misnomer, for there is no Jamaican high school diploma for which there can be an equivalency! I have been arguing for one for years.
After years of foot-dragging, the Government says it is rolling out a national standards curriculum, beginning this school year. But this is only for grades 1-9. Remember ROSE, the Reform of Secondary Education, with its unified grades 1-9 curriculum?
There is still no high school diploma on the horizon to certify minimum satisfactory completion of a high school curriculum. Reliance could be made on CSEC passes (and equivalent exams like City & Guilds), but those fancy and expensive school-leaving exercises (not real graduations based on achievement for 75 per cent of high school students) would have to wait until after results are out, as a number of schools now, in fact, do. The graduate should have satisfactorily completed the internal grades 1-9 standard curriculum, plus scoring English and maths and at least one science, one arts, and one technical/vocational subject in an appropriate external exam.
The National Standards Curriculum for the lower secondary grades says it will be placing emphasis on project-based and problem-solving learning, allowing the learners to have hands-on experiences that are similar to real-world situations, making the learning experience less abstract and more concrete. The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) has been attempting that for years through its School-Based Assessment (SBA) component. Now, 40 students of Penwood High School are left in a quandary, with their SBAs having not been submitted to CXC for all of six subjects.
I am aware of at least one other case, this one at Pembroke Hall High.
I find the response of the Government to the Penwood fiasco, or at least the media reporting of it, rather obfuscatory. Clearly, there has to be a chain of command and of custody, and the first obligation is to identify the point of breakdown from which culpability follows. Someone, somewhere has to be responsible. What is not a satisfactory solution is for the students to be left with the liability. We are expecting a solution. And there are several viable options that will not be punitive to students who did their work and, in good faith, submitted it at school, fulfilling their obligation in the matter.
STUDENTS LOSING OUT
The Penwood High SBA incident brings to the fore two issues, which I have been circling in this column: quality control and accountability in the system. Students too often come out at the losing end. Schools have layers of leadership, and so does the Government Administration for Education, which can allow for appropriate checks and balances and the curtailment of the exercise of arbitrary power such as Minott is insisting individual teachers may be able to wield over their charges.
When the current minister of education, Senator Ruel Reid, speaking about the successes of the Education System Transformation Programme (ESTP) in his national broadcast for the start of the school year, says, "we are doing it right", the "we", of course, refers to government across four administrations. The ESTP emerged out of the 2004 P. J. Patterson-Burchell Whiteman National Task Force on Education Reform and has been running since, a good example of continuity in policy and performance across government administrations formed by different political parties. Although much too long as a project, that's how we dawdle along in governance in Jamaica unless we have an IMF pushing from behind. The project was extended for a year because of procurement issues, raising a whole other issue of governance and performance.
The critical challenge for education now is to sharply lift performance levels and the quality of graduates from each level as productive citizens with the full meaning of 'citizen'.
Reid also has responsibility for another heralded National Values and Attitudes Committee, which will be a "lasting one" this time, and has invited his predecessor and opposition counterpart Ronald Thwaites to co-chair with him. Remember Patterson's Values and Attitudes campaign, which was abandoned to die?
Thwaites, when minister, was thrown into the mucken mire like the prophet Jeremiah when he said some school children were behaving like "leggo beasts". The National Standards Curriculum intends to help tame them. The goal of the new curriculum is to improve the general academic performance, attitude, and behaviour of students, which will redound to the positive shaping of the national social and economic fabric. And civics is coming back! Let's groom them, not cream them.
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