JAMAICA CANNOT afford - as Freeman Hrabowski of the University of Maryland urged in a speech in Kingston last week -
But we can take Professor Hrabowski's point of the importance of science to economic development and the need to pay premium for scarce skills. We agree, too, that Jamaica should be pivoting its education towards improving the teaching of math and science, if it is to lift the country's poor performance in these subjects.
The issue, therefore, taking into account Jamaica's difficult economic circumstances, is how to attract talented teachers to the classroom and keep them there.
First, the education authorities have to muster the courage to move from an intellectual appreciation of a market-driven approach to compensating for skills that are not in great supply, to its practical application. In other words, the idea of basic pay grades for teachers, based largely on qualification, without differentiation for the subjects in which they are qualified, is no longer tenable where it exists.
PAY MORE FOR AREA, PERFORMANCE
So, within the context of what the country can afford, we should be willing to pay more for good teachers who are qualified in math and science.
Additionally, teachers across the education system should be compensated for outcomes, that is to say, based on performance.
The teachers' union, the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), is almost reflexively opposed to this idea, insisting that all schools have to be equally endowed, in terms of financial resources, the "quality" of the students with which they have to work, and the social milieu in which they operate. Such arguments are, of course, a deliberate red herring across the trail of a demand for greater effort with the ultimate, if unintended, outcome of giving ascendancy to combined mediocrity.
The brilliant may work hard and may even attain excellence, as long as that achievement is subsumed by the pack. Or, the JTA seems to believe that Jamaicans are incapable of fashioning performance-incentive schemes that benchmark deliverables against the elements that impact on individual schools, without a radical lowering of the bar.
MAKE SCIENCE SEXY
But recruiting and compensating teachers is only one of the tactics in the strategic mission of bringing science and technology to the centre of, as Professor Hrabowski put it, Jamaican "culture".
The short answer is to make science and technology 'sexy' to all Jamaicans. We have not only to celebrate genuine achievements in these fields, but to demonstrate the correlation between strong performance in science and technology and economic growth and job creation.
At the same time, incentives, including student loans and bursaries, should be skewed in favour of students who opt for science and technology, as against those who study the arts and humanities, who now account for perhaps six out of 10 of the country's undergraduates. We have observed some effort at a shift in this direction by tertiary institutions, especially the University of the West Indies at Mona.
The process, however, has to be accelerated, driven by a clearly articulated strategy that underpins government policy.
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