Mon | Nov 19, 2018

Martin Henry | Teachers out of step with PEP

Published:Sunday | August 26, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Once again, the tail is stiffening to wag the dog.

Dr Garth Anderson, a strong speaker rivalling the homiletic calibre of Minister of Education Ruel Reid, opened his one-year presidency of the JTA at annual conference last week, calling for the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) to be postponed and for the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) to continue.

Dr Anderson, an advanced critical thinker with a doctoral degree, should be mindful of the double-edged nature of the reason he tendered in support of his passionate call. PEP, the replacement for GSAT, remains a mystery to teachers and students, he told JTA membership, to rousing applause. It could be that the MOE has failed in its duty to familiarise teachers with the new curriculum and its assessment. But it could also be that teachers, short on core competencies for meeting the challenges of PEP, are running scared and mounting defensive blockades.

Critical thinking and open-ended learning are core components of PEP. Interactions with the primary, the secondary - and indeed, the tertiary - graduate quickly expose the general paucity of these skills coming out of the Jamaican education system. This can't simply be the tough-headed pickney dem fault. Or the curriculum's. And the problem loops back into teacher education. Jamaica is coasting along, and rather badly, with a small apex of intellectual high achievers who rise despite the school system, and not because of it, and survive the massive weeding out along the way.

And, oh, GSAT, a two-day exam marathon, is a better feeder than PEP can be of the extra-lessons industry that supplements less-than-adequate salaries.

In my long time in and around education, I have observed and participated in many curriculum developments. That famous Mavis Gilmour 1980s Primary Curriculum, CXC sciences, the Reform of Secondary Education (ROSE) curriculum, the Primary Education Improvement Project (PEIP I and PEIP II), the National Assessment Programme (NAP), of which the GSAT is the final component, the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) Project, and institutional curriculum design and delivery in higher education.

We, perhaps, should pause and ask the critical thinkers in the MOE to pause and assess the out-turns from these curriculum reform efforts over the last several decades. And to answer why none of them has been more successful.

One important lesson is that curriculum design and delivery involve heavy doses of learning by doing and learning as you go, involving critical feedback loops. And PEP, with its focus on critical thinking, open-ended learning, and learning by doing, is a great opportunity for teachers to join students in learning the curriculum and making it work to purpose. The teacher resistance for the reasons being bandied about, including from the very top of the JTA, is telling.

 

PRESS ON WITH PEP

 

While immediate past president of the JTA, Georgia Waugh Richards, was at the conference lambasting members for criticising the leadership of the association and leaking information to the media (I do not condone truly unethical behaviour), the principal of Tarrant Primary, a challenging school, Thelma Porter, was urging the MOE to press on with rolling out PEP in the coming school year as planned. Her reasoning is that even if Government were to wait for another five years, some teachers and principals would still complain of not being ready. So start now.

Porter praised the PEP focus on building the critical-thinking skills of students. Which, of course, will inevitably force an upgrade of the critical-thinking skills of teachers who are now fighting a rearguard battle for the preservation of higher levels of rote learning and of knowledge-intensive one-off testing.

But whatever the virtues of PEP, it comes with the baggage of the Common Entrance Examination and GSAT. Exit assessment at the primary level is entry assessment to the secondary level. And coveted high-quality high-school places are scarce as an outcome of our twisted history of secondary education. The truth is, with PEP, students and their parents will still have to face the agony of competition for the best secondary places. This time stretched over a much longer period.

Two overlapping debates have broken out about employers needing to vary their entry qualifications requirements from just stating CSEC passes, as there are other exams about, and about lowering their CSEC demands.

In the first instance, there are pitifully few formal jobs requiring only CSEC qualifications. CSEC is merely a base for training for certification. If a young person qualifies for the training, that person's CSEC worries are over, really. The real problem is that only 37 per cent of the sitting cohort manage to pass the base-level five CSEC subjects, including the mandatory English language and mathematics. And there are many who don't sit at all.

Employers are not social-welfare agencies. They want competent workers with demonstrated core skills. Examination passes send that signal.

Employers are not examiners. It should be the business of Government to work out all those examination equivalencies, publicise them, and, very important, prepare the job seekers while they are in school to make the equivalence case when they seek work later.

 

AWARD DIPLOMAS

 

But all of this mess could be cleared away if we simply did what I have been advocating for a long time: award a high-school diploma.

CSEC may well remain the examiner. But students should be required to demonstrate a set minimum achievement in secondary education in order to graduate. That minimum competence must include language and math, plus some kind of science, some kind of arts/humanities, and some kind of technical/vocational skill, taken to grade 11 and passed in some kind of standard examination.

But I am shooting the breeze - again. Our arrangement for a hodgepodge of CSEC subjects for 'graduation' and advancement allows us to mask the tragedy and travesty of mass failure of students in the secondary education system, where nearly two-thirds of those who sit the exit CSEC exams can't even muster five passes with English and maths.

Lebert Langley, the president of the University of Technology, Jamaica Academic Staff Union, has written an important article carried by both The Sunday Gleaner (August 19) and the Observer (August 20), 'UTech: funding the national university'.

Langley has exposed the inequity and injustice heaped upon UTech by the very Government that created it by an act of Parliament and gave it a powerful university charter, yet to be fully actualised.

I have written to Mr Langley to say:

"Your Public Affairs column ... is an important contribution to the public issue of state financing of tertiary education with equity and justice - and rationality. ... And coming from the academic staff union, which has foregone its usual parochial advocacy for better conditions for members to address the matter from the broader perspective of the interest of the collective university and the nation, the article assumes even greater significance ... .

"I have long advocated that [university] leadership has no more important responsibility than ensuring the equitable and just financing of the institution to fulfil the mandate comprehensively set for it in the powerful University of Technology, Jamaica Act. Part of that financing being a 'transition fund' which was never granted for the conversion of CAST to university and must be provided belatedly.

"The cap-in-hand approach to Government has not yielded the desired results and does not have my support. I have long advocated ... that we take a far more frontal approach for equitable and just treatment in financing and for the full activation of the act which, in effect, created a largely autonomous charter university with state support but not state control in the finest British tradition.

"... The internal processes towards building a world-class university, an MIT of the Caribbean as people like to mouth, are stymied now, and will continue to be stymied, by the external conditions of university-state relations. If the rules of engagement cannot be rewritten, UTech, Jamaica has essentially peaked as a Third-World polytechnic-cum-university, of which there are hundreds littering the global higher-education landscape.

"Your column suggests that academic staff understand this and are committing to a battle larger than ... personal benefits, and indeed on whose outcome those benefits depend more than on any labour negotiation, however vigorously conducted, from the position of an agency of the State no different from the high school down the road."

Minister Reid, the Christian preacher, must press on with PEP, and with PEP, pursue righting the wrongs done to UTech, setting the university on a better path to fulfilling its charter mandate.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.