Michelle Garvey Clarke, Guest Columnist
This column is based on a thesis done by the author as part of her graduate research for a Master of Science in counselling psychology at Northern Caribbean University.
The phenomenon of at-risk youth is a key social issue in Jamaica. International experience indicates that the best way to address the issue of youth at risk is to keep them in school and improve their academic performance. Academic performance, as measured by exam passes, is a problem for students in many upgraded high schools. These students embark on secondary education with obvious handicaps - that of literacy and numeracy challenges - and the blighted harvest reaped has significant psychological and social implications.
The problem of underachievement in upgraded high schools must be resolved if the future society is to be assured of a productive and functional labour force capable of competing in a fiercely competitive and globalised marketplace.
All Jamaican parents, regardless of their station in life, cherish grandiose thoughts of their children receiving the best education and going on to live successful lives. All parents expect their children will earn a coveted place in a traditional high school, setting the stage for advancement to a reputable university, and ultimately, to a high-paying job in corporate Jamaica.
If you were to converse with any parent whose child has attended/or is attending a traditional high school, you would possibly observe how the proportions of the chest increases, as does the pitch of the voice, as they declare with pride that their child is a student at a traditional high school. Conversely, note the difference in the conversation with a parent whose child attends an upgraded high school. The body language exhibits anything but pride, and the conversation invariably goes down the beaten path of poor academic performance and behavioural challenges.
Consider a brief comparative analysis of the performance of students in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination: In 2007, 89 per cent of the cohort in upgraded high schools failed English, compared to 37 per cent in traditional high schools. For mathematics, 96 per cent of the cohort in upgraded high schools failed mathematics, compared to 59 per cent in traditional high schools. In 2009, 58 per cent of students across all secondary schools failed to achieve a passing grade in English, while 63 per cent failed to achieve a passing grade in mathematics.
The performance of students in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) - the screening mechanism for entry to upgraded or traditional high schools - also falls far short of being praiseworthy. In 2010, the national average scores attained per subject were: mathematics - 56 per cent; language arts - 58 per cent; social studies - 58 per cent; and communication task - 66 per cent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the mass of students that transition to upgraded high schools through GSAT are numerate deficient and illiterate, with many attaining scores ranging from 0 to 20 per cent in the core areas of English and mathematics.
How does a student transition through primary-level education and arrive at the juncture of high school without mastery in the core subjects of English and mathematics? Is it logical or realistic to expect that this same illiterate and numerate-deficient student will automatically evolve at high school, and after five years, achieve passing grades in the range of subjects reliant on comprehension and computation?
The ongoing debate on the inequalities within the education system in Jamaica dates back to the 1800s; however, we are yet to address the pertinent issues:
(1) Why is there such a significant disparity between the academic performance of students in upgraded high schools and those in traditional high schools?
(2) Why do students in upgraded high schools perform so poorly in the core subject areas of mathematics and English?
(3) Are all Jamaican students entitled to comparable quality education, or are some students more entitled than others?
(4) Is the education system effectively structured to meet the needs of Jamaican students?
(5) What effect does an inequitable system of education have on the psyche of the Jamaican student and on the wider society?
(6) What are the real challenges faced by students in upgraded high schools, and when will Jamaica chart the path to an equitable system of education that adequately prepares our young people to be valuable and contributing members of society? Examination results are but a symptom of a deeper problem: that of an education system which, despite its best efforts, is failing to effectively educate poor Jamaican children.
A glimmer of hope is desperately needed on which to hang the future of students in upgraded high schools. Jamaica needs to stop and assess its path over the last 100-plus years, examine the positives and negatives of the existing system of secondary education, and consider the long-term psychological and social implications for students who continue to be subjected to this modern system of mental slavery.
The findings of my study indicate that a range of factors contribute to the academic outcomes of students in upgraded high schools. However, the most significant is that many students transitioning to upgraded high schools are illiterate and numerate deficient. This finding suggests a lack of adequate preparation of students at the primary level, particularly in the core subjects of English and mathematics. A pedagogy driven by the traditional chalk-and-talk method of instruction; a learning context that is teacher-led, rather than participative; educators that are ill-equipped to facilitate learning; and a hostile cultural context towards the educated were some of the factors found to influence the academic outcomes of the students.
Of note, however, is that despite failure in English and mathematics, a significant percentage of students were able to achieve passes in physics, information technology, office administration, and accounting, to name a few. The ability of the student is, therefore, not in question, but rather, the student is limited by factors in the school and home environment as well as the socio-economic and cultural context.
Within the school and home environment, placement of students in homogenous groups was found to impede rather than improve performance; large classes - some with a 40:1 student-teacher ratio-inhibited remediation and effective interaction; lack of basic resources; an ethos accommodating of indiscipline; and lack of parental involvement and support were all viewed as factors impacting learning and achievement. The socio-economic and cultural factors found to influence academic outcomes include paucity of resources both at the home and school level, and a context that placed a low value on education and the educated.
Participants proposed a raft of recommendations relevant for mental-health professionals, government, and policymakers, and administrators, teachers and other stakeholders.
Recommendations include: (1) new pedagogical approaches in the core subject areas of English and mathematics that include an experiential component connected to the cultural context of students; (2) standards for teacher qualifications and competencies across all levels of the education system; (3) ongoing teacher upgrading that is focused on identifying and meeting the needs of the student; (4) adequate resourcing for students that require specialised assistance; (5) a robust performance-management system in schools; (6) extra lessons focused on remediation; (7) random organisation of students in classes (mixed-ability groups); (8) parent patrols to support disciplinary measures in the school; (9) workshops and activities to engage parents and the communities in the learning process; and, (10) the engagement of churches and civic organisations in providing additional support such as breakfast programmes, homework centres, counselling services and social awareness outings to expose students to settings outside their own context.
In the final analysis, systemic, innovative and sustained interventions, fully supported by key stakeholders will be required if the cycle of underachievement in upgraded high schools is to be broken.
Leaders who neglect education lack vision and maturity, and they are unqualified to lead; we should try by every means to promote education, even if it means slowing down in other areas. However poor we are, we should give priority to funding education (Soedijarto, 2009).
The overall findings of this study point to the fact that students in upgraded high schools are the victims of an uncaring and ill-equipped education system, and systemic change is needed both at the primary and secondary levels if the cycle of underachievement is to be broken.
Administrators and other key stakeholders of upgraded high schools must take responsibility for the quality of education it provides and the academic outcomes of its student population. If administrators in schools and other key stakeholders continue to roll over and play dead, the Government will do nothing about an ineffective system that has blighted the potential of a large mass of our people for more than a century.
The power resides with the young people marginalised by society and locked out of gainful employment because they do not bring with them the academic trappings of CSEC passes.
The power resides with the mothers and fathers that live a life of privation in order to send the boy to school, and five years later, are saddled with the worry that the boy is still at home, unable to get a job, and at risk for recruitment into the gangs of the corner. The power for change lies in the hands of those that experience repression and failure; and together, they must rise up and use their voices calculatedly and deliberately in order to force change.
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