Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Education: When will we ever learn?

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing.

-Warren Buffett

We spend a lot of money on education. Our public investment in education of 6.1 per cent of GDP is much better than the average 5.2 per cent of developed countries. As for enrolment at the pre-primary and primary levels, our numbers are astounding. In the three-to-five-year-old age range, we are recording enrolment rates of 99 per cent, while at the primary level, it is over 95per cent.

We have most of our youngsters in schools, presumably there to learn, and we have a sizable education budget, what more could we ask for? Obvio-usly, a whole lot more when we look at performance. Our numbers are not stellar, so a more relevant question would be, when will we ever learn?

Only 37 per cent of those who sit CSEC pass at least five subjects, including English and maths. But there are many more who are eligible to sit, but are not ready, having not passed pre-screening mock exams. Ardenne High School principal Nadine Molloy pointed out that "too many of our students come to high schools from the primary level without the basic foundation. If a child in grade 11 is reading at grade-seven level, how can that child pass CSEC?"

Out of 1,800 mathematics teachers in high schools, only 13%, or some 240 teachers, have full mathematics degrees.

Seventy-five per cent of persons 25 to 59 have no certification. Thirty per cent of 'out-of-school' youth indicate they are not in school because they are not interested.

I could go on and on, but I invite readers to read the 2014 Ministry of Education Statistics, as well as Prisms of Possibility - A Report Card on Education in Jamaica, and the 2013 National Education Inspectorate report.

At one time, education was a monopoly. It was seen as the main lever getting us somewhere. Whenever we succeeded, we earned respect; after all, we were educated.

Now, things are different, and education is no longer a monopoly, or no longer regarded as such by a large number of those consuming its services. Social media is massive and has literally overtaken traditional education. The interplay, interconnectedness, visual images, and instant communication, information sourcing, and the knowledge that students transmit and deem important, all on social media, mean that reading and writing, and chalk and talk, are not as significant as first time.

Also riveting and capturing the hearts and minds of the students are the success stories of young singers who put together a song, or just 'buss a tune' that goes viral overnight - Konshens, I-Octane, Popcaan, Mavado - as well as the achievement of the more established singers who do well on the local and international circuits - Beenie Man, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Bounty Killer, Tarrus Riley.

The overnight achievements of poor kids now parading their wealth as successful singers provide a vicarious thrill for young people tuning in, and offers hope that one day they, too, can be successful. So who needs school?

A third frontal attack or, more accurately, assault against education's dominance is the seeming ease in which ill-gotten gains from nefarious activities can be pursued. The ostentatious lifestyle it affords, from bling to the Bimmer (the fancy cars), is magnetic for youngsters struggling against the odds.

Even gangs, with their social structure, organisation and togetherness, can find favour with the disadvantaged youth.

 

EDUCATIONAL REFORM

 

The challenges of providing education are immense and foreboding. Today, it simply can't be business as usual. It can't be the status quo. Education, including the classroom, has to be innovative and transformative, and on this score, I will eventually expand on my solutions, which are summarised below.

1. We have to go a bit further in matching the technology, relevance and currency of the classroom with the outside competition.

2. We have to excite our kids in wanting to learn and wanting to go to school, while understanding how to influence nation building and foster growth and development. For example, if 70 per cent of our national output is in the service sector, are students aware of this, and do we emphasise a behavioural construct to help them, whether they are leaders, managers or workers, in knowing how to present themselves, how to be of service, how to problem-solve, and what courtesy, politeness and decorum mean?

Beyond that, we must use the magnetism of audiovisual presentations to excite children about current and emerging job opportunities, and skill sets required in management and leadership in the service sector, as well as the goods-producing sector, including manufacturing and agriculture.

 

DRIVING EXCELLENCE

 

3. We have to disarm ourselves of the excuses and the mediocrity that have overtaken us. Every time I come to Jamaica, I get exhausted from hearing how much we have to lower the bar to take care of everyone. Excellence and exceptionalism must be the driver. It must be the honours student who is emulated and paraded, and the brilliant educator who must be financially rewarded.

4. Just as music excites our kids, we have to excite them with riveting achievements, conveyed through drama. There are so many Jamaicans who are brilliant and excellent who we can capture on full-length films to present to our students. An added benefit here would be the logic of retaining Outameni and recycling the cricket grounds in Trelawny to ensure the foundation of a first-rate film industry, akin to Canada's much-acclaimed achievements in its own film industry.

5. It can't be just freedom to choose; we must find a better way to challenge students and push them to make tougher and more relevant choices as regards educational disciplines and outcomes.

6. Music and dance capture the soul and movement of all Jamaicans and we must find a way to reward and motivate students using these powerful tools.

7. It is imperative that we equalise learning throughout all schools by ensuring that children everywhere in Jamaica have access to our best educators.

8. We bemoan the fact that non-school factors such as poor parenting account for underperformance in schools. We must change the nexus between parent and child "whereby a little child shall lead them".

9. We have to take the fight to the competition. While this has to do more with governance, we mention it here because of the challenges posed to education and to our young. Former police commissioner Owen Ellington said, in an interview I had with him recently, "Guns are our scourge, our big problem. It is the main driver of violence in murders, in rape, in so many gangs where school-age children are lured, and even in the lottery scam, which seems to fascinate our youth.

"We have to get serious to save our children, especially those in school. That's why I am supportive of mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years for convictions after trial. I also support a mandatory minimum of 10 years on guilty pleas. Further incentives should be considered for persons who offer to give evidence in the prosecution of criminal accomplices. There should be a timeline of 12 months for disposal of cases, during which time there should be no bail. We have to get our young, impressionable minds to understand that romanticising crime is not worth it, and it is not an alternative to education."

10. We have to impose a talent agenda that develops new skill sets. The emerging syllabus will integrate collaboration, communication, problem-solving and networking technology, with more natural linkages between the sciences.

- Mark Ricketts, economist, author, and lecturer living in California, was chief economist of the Vancouver Board of Trade in Canada; deputy chairman of the Jamaica Stock Exchange; assistant editor of the Financial Post; and publisher of Money Index. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.