Returns on education
Published: Sunday | February 22, 2009
Prime Minister Golding has stepped in where angels and most other politicians might fear to tread.
Speaking at St George's College, he announced his dissatisfaction with the returns on education. Dr Omar Davies, when he was minister of finance, made similar utterances, but was quickly made to back off.
So, what got into Golding to say: "All the shortages notwithstanding, all the scarcity of resources notwithstanding, we do not feel that we are getting as much out of our investment in education as we ought to be getting out." Doesn't the prime minister know that powerful teachers' unions, armed with public sympathy, are the principal arbiters of educational reform everywhere in the democratic world and must not be messed with?
After paying down the national debt, which constitutionally has first take on the Budget, and which now takes well over a half of each revenue dollar, education gets the next biggest slice of public expenditure. Golding noted: "We are spending $54 billion-$55 billion - the supplementary estimates have taken it up further - on education each year, and while we probably need to spend double that, we need to be satisfied that we are getting value for money for every one of those precious dollars that we are spending."
The prime minister 'feels' that we may not be getting value for money in education. This is government by gut and ignorance, the preferred mode in Jamaica and other backward places, not evidence-based policy and planning. Professor of teacher education and a one-time president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, Dr Errol Miller, from previous pronouncements, would have the prime minister know that, on the basis of the evidence, the country is getting a pretty good deal out of what it puts into education.
As the two political parties forming Government and Opposition expend time and energy 'tracing' each other over who can mash up the country better, it is a fact of history that one of the most significant and transformative contributions of the last People's National Party (PNP) administration was the massive expansion of educational access.
Between 1989 and 2007, access to post-secondary education jumped up from about five per cent of the age-eligible cohort to close to 20 per cent. From one monopoly regional university, the PNP administration left seven in place, not counting the offshore ones.
The attempted unification of the secondary level and the creation of many more places to provide near-universal access, was at least as important as Norman Manley's opening up of the system through the Common Entrance Examination back in 1958.
The attempt at systemic 'educational transformation' did not go far enough, fast enough, but was a good shot. Current minister of education, the energetic and transformative Andrew Holness, is quite right in stopping the inherited Education Transformation Team from hardening into a low-performance bureaucracy existing because it needs to exist.
But one of the most significant achievements of the Pattersonian attempt at educational transformation was the creation of tools to measure system output at the foundational primary level. That basket of tools is called the National Assessment Programme (NAP). The current prime minister has inherited an effective tool to convert gut feelings about education performance into hard data for policy and planning. He should acknowledge his debt and say thanks.
Management consultant Trevor Hamilton had a bad bout of irrationality, or spoke from ignorance, in an otherwise useful intervention when he told a Gleaner Editors' Forum that it was behavioural outcomes which mattered most, not examination passes. No one who knows the business would dispute that "the behavioural outcome is the most critical success factor in life and accounts for more than 60 per cent of employability and job retention". But try getting jobs without knowledge and skills - or entry into the next level of education, for that matter. Educators have long ago figured out how to teach and assess knowledge, skills and attitude, the famous KSA of curriculum.
I have gone and dug up my copy of the 1998 NAP information booklet, which says the NAP "is a programme to monitor how well grade-one through to grade-six students are learning throughout the years of primary level schooling".
The NAP tests at four grades: The Grade One Readiness Inventory, the Grade Three Diagnostic Tests, the Grade Four Literacy Test and the Grade Six Achievement Tests. The last two have been most in the news. But none of them has pretty results. Large numbers of Jamaican children are not ready for primary education, can't read well at grade four, and exit the primary level unready for secondary education.
There is welcome news that the Government is reviewing the GSAT, which has become just another feared placement exam, and is treating seriously a recommendation to set and enforce national standards for secondary education. I have been for years a dogged advocate of a standard high-school diploma over and above a loose collection of CXC subjects at the end of secondary school.
One excellent spin-off of the NAP, a spin-off, which so far, has been poorly used, is that it not only assesses students, but the comparative data also provide a basis for the assessment of teachers, schools, the Ministry of Education itself, the tests themselves, and, in fact, the whole primary education system.
This is where Prime Minister Golding's St George's College comments are taking him and the Government.
How is the blame of poor system performance to be equitably allocated?
Teachers are resistant to performance assessment and even more so to performance-based pay. And they have a powerful union to back them. A large number of Jamaican parents - and students - are far more interested in daggerin' and what goes on in the Rampin' Shop than in education.
The Government itself wants to be able to continue to give the system basket to carry water, while patting itself on the back over how much it is doing for education. Providing only an estimated 50 per cent of the real cost of secondary education, it has previously resorted, through its head, to curse schools for collecting "exorbitant" auxiliary fees. And now, with the dollar tumbling and prices soaring, it has unethically placed a freeze on any increase of supplementary fees for two years, even while itself contemplating tax increases.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.