By Dr. Ralph Thompson, Contributor
Thompson: The solution to Jamaica's educational crisis is this: the Government must take control of the early childhood link in the system, channelling to it the best trained teachers. - Rudolph Brown/Staff Photographer
THE Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) results for 2003 continue to be disastrous and provide statistical evidence that the nation's education apparatus is in deep trouble, with frightening consequences for the future of Jamaica.
Despite the poor pass rate, however, I refuse to believe that Jamaican children are any less bright than children anywhere else. Our children possess a natural intelligence which only needs to be cultivated to blossom into brilliance. The disappointing pass rate in the CXC exams this year is a tragic reminder that the State is not honouring its obligation to educate its young citizens properly, especially the children of the poor, and that our school system needs a complete overhaul.
The National Council on Education (NCE) has just released the disaggregated results for English and mathematics, the two foundation subjects on which we stand or fall, and they do not make for pleasant reading.
Two preliminary observations: the CXC examinations are not culturally alien to Jamaica nor do they set unfairly high standards. It is the same examination by which our Caribbean neighbours are judged. It is not a 'do-or-die' exam because its very structure accommodates for differences in children's aptitudes by marking in three grades, Grade I being evidence of those who do exceptionally well, Grade II being an acceptable average and Grade III being barely a passing mark. Professor Stephen Vasciannie, head of the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies (Mona), assessed last year's exams and found the questions reasonable.
The other preamble in this: the purpose of a nation's education system is to educate to a certain level all children enrolled in the process and our judgement of how well or badly the system is working must be based on how many of the total student cohort have performed satisfactorily in the CXC exams. For too long, school principals have been allowed by the Ministry of Education to predetermine how many of the children in their school are likely to pass CXC and these pre-selected students are the only ones who can sit the exams.
The number of passes are then related to these 'entries', not to the total cohort of students, which obviously makes the percentage pass rate better than it really is. Statistics based on this approach are misleading and are designed to make the schools look artificially better than they really are. Our analysis must not only be focused on the poor results of those permitted to sit the exam but on the fate of those so badly taught in the system that they are not even allowed to take CXC. We need to keep asking ourselves, where do these rejects end up in society?
The following analysis sets out the ratios related to the total student cohort in English and mathematics, comparing results with last year, overall results as well as disaggregated results between traditional and non-traditional secondary schools, based on the NCE data. (See Table I)
This table shows that for all schools, traditional secondary schools, non-traditional secondary schools and technical schools, the pass rate for English this year was 25.3 per cent of the total cohort, down from 27.8 per cent last year. The pass rate for mathematics is lower than for English, 16.7 per cent this year, which is marginally better than the maths pass rate of 15.8 per cent last year.
It should be noted that 16,123 students were not allowed to take the CXC English exam this year and 19,679 were excluded from the math exam, an exclusion rate of 44 per cent in English and an exclusion rate of 56 per cent in maths. (See Table II)
The average pass rate for the top 10 schools in English is a very respectable 85.73 per cent compared with only 25.3 per cent for all schools. The pass rate in math for the top 10 secondary schools is lower than for English but is nevertheless quite satisfactory at 73.32 per cent compared with a pitiful 16.7 per cent for all schools. The reason for this will be clear from the following Table III which shows how the non-traditional secondary schools pull down the national average. (See Table III)
For non-traditional secondary schools, the pass rate in English has fallen from 10.7 per cent in 2002 to 9.2 per cent in 2003. In maths, the pass rate has gone up slightly from 4.1 per cent in 2002 to 4.7 per cent in 2003. Eighty per cent of the secondary school population of Jamaica attends non-traditional secondary schools which means that 80 per cent of high schools students can only achieve a 9.2 per cent pass in English and a 4.7 per cent pass in mathematics. No wonder we are in trouble! (See Table IV)
The 10 non-traditional secondary schools could only muster a pass rate of 22.5 per cent in English compared with a pass rate of 85.73 per cent by the top 10 secondary schools. In math, the top 10 non-traditional secondary schools only scored 12.53 per cent compared with 73.2 per cent by the top 10 schools. In English, no non-traditional school achieved a pass rate better than 25 per cent.
So poor are the results generally for non-traditional secondary schools that there is really no point in recording the 10 worst. Their principals will know who they are when the NCE report is officially released. Suffice it to say that two non-traditional secondary schools representing a total cohort of 249 children could not produce a single CXC pass even at Grade III.
In my view, the system is fatally flawed in two major respects, the poor quality of our teachers and the failure to put more State resources into early childhood education. We have six teacher-training colleges but why do we settle for mediocrity by making the entry requirements to them so low only four CXC subjects at Grade III? In our top secondary schools, students are taking eight subjects which they regularly pass at Grades I and II. There are some 300 teacher college lecturers, only 107 of whom have post-graduate degrees. No teacher who teaches our teachers should have less than a Master's degree in Education and the entry requirements for potential teachers should be raised to a minimum of five CXC passes of which English must be at Grade II.
A DOUBLE STANDARD SYSTEM
Until recently, the State has been generally disinterested in early childhood education, rationalising that this can be left to parents despite the fact that the nuclear family in Jamaica is virtually non-existent. There are only 29 Government basic schools but some 1,600 so-called community basic schools run for profit by private sector entrepreneurs or by churches with minimum Government assistance. These community basic schools represent a school population of some 136,000 children between the ages of two and seven, the most crucial learning stage of a human being's development. We license bars and insist on food handler permits but we do not license community basic schools, whose teachers are in most cases untrained, unable to speak standard English and are paid only slightly more than domestic helpers. There are no common standards and no common curriculum.
Every system, no matter how disabled, throws up some glorious exceptions, Jamaicans who excel at home and abroad, and in an understandable but misguided sense of nationalism we continue to focus on these few bright sons and daughters, refusing to confront the reality of illiterate and under-educated children of the poor who get little or no intellectual or emotional tools to cope with their frustrations in a crisis ridden society. The ranks of the under-educated and the drop-outs from the secondary schools increase by about 16,000 each year, the boys holding their corners, the girls holding their babies.
The solution to Jamaica's educational crisis should by now be almost self-evident: the Government must take control of the early childhood link in the system, channelling to it the best trained teachers who can give the children in their formative years the intellectual and emotional grounding they need to make up for lack of parenting and to do well in primary school. This early training should emphasise reading and speaking standard English, areas in which retired teachers can make a contribution, coming as they would from a generation with no hang ups about English versus patois.
With such a strong foundation, many of the problems facing Jamaican education at the primary and secondary levels, including the poor CXC pass rate, would almost automatically begin to disappear. If we pay teachers properly and license them to ensure accountability, bright youngsters will be attracted to the profession and entry requirements for teacher training colleges can be raised. To redress misguided policies of the past, we must now put even greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity.
Dr. Ralph Thompson is a member of the National Council on Education.