Sun | Dec 15, 2019

THE NEXT 50 YEARS - Improving our education system a must

Published:Sunday | December 23, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Grade four students of Old Harbour Primary School in St Catherine in deep concentration while sitting the Grade Four Literacy Test in 2010. - File

Grace-Camille Munroe, Contributor

THE TASK FORCE Report on Education (2004) provided a detailed situational analysis of the Jamaican education system. Among the findings, the report concluded that a significant number of primary-aged students had not acquired the minimum acceptable literacy and numeracy competencies. This, in turn, has resulted in students being ill-equipped to engage in secondary-level education.

Given that literacy is a fundamental human right - it is the vehicle by which knowledge is acquired and the basis upon which learning occurs - the Ministry of Education (MOE) has taken on as its core function improving literacy rates among students.

In keeping with this, a number of initiatives have been implemented with success, for example: the development of a policy in 2009 to tackle illiteracy at the basic level; the setting of the national literacy target of 100 per cent literacy by 2015; the implementation of the national literacy programme for grades one-three and four-six; and the recruitment of a national literacy coordinator and literacy specialists.

Moreover, the
MOE has shifted focus, rightfully so, to the early childhood level to
ensure that student readiness at this level is optimal. Provided that
educational goods and services are improved and supported by functioning
systems of accountability and the other critical inputs at the primary
and secondary levels, we can expect the gains in student learning and
achievement to increase.

With regard to
accountability, the Ministry of Education has designed and implemented a
school accountability matrix (SAM), which outlines a chain of
responsibility from the Ministry of Education to school officials. The
purpose of the matrix is to help schools set targets and monitor their
progress towards achieving the national target. Equally important, it is
also intended to signal that the success or failure of our students is a
shared responsibility, hence, we all have to be held accountable for
the timely, effective, and efficient implementation of
SAM.

Before I proceed, I think it is important to
articulate some of the tenets of the Competence-Based Transition Policy.
As stated before, the goal of the policy is geared towards raising
national literacy rates to optimal levels. Among other things, the
policy is expected to: 1) ensure that students entering the secondary
level are equipped with the requisite competencies for them to engage in
the secondary learning experience; 2) ensure that provisions are in
place to identify students with special needs and that resources are
appropriately targeted; and 3) secure the Grade Four Literacy Test as a
critical focal point of the primary level.

The policy
has also established an alternative pathway through the Alternative
Secondary Transition Education Programme for students who are not
literate.

Student progress

This
article will provide a brief overview of student progress in the Grade
Four Literacy and Numeracy Tests covering selected years - 2001-2011. A
highlight of the article will be student gender-based performance at the
public level. A number of recommendations will be presented for
consideration.

Student Performance in Grade Four
Literacy Test

The Grade Four Literacy Test is one of
the five batteries of assessments implemented under the National
Assessment Programme (NAP). The NAP is used to determine student
readiness through the Grade One Learning Profile and the level at which
students have developed basic competencies in literacy and numeracy
using the Grade Three Diagnostic, Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy, and
Grade Six Achievement tests.

The literacy test was
introduced into the primary system in 1998 where it was administered at
the classroom level; however, the test is now administrated nationally
under exam conditions. Annually, an average of about 45,000-50,000
students sit the Grade Four test in June, and an estimated 15 per cent
to 20 per cent of the cohort sits the supplemental examination in
December.

Based on the data, while student
participation over the period fluctuated, an increase was recorded. The
trend suggests that this increase will continue; however, it will level
off at approximately 50,000 annually.

Student-mastery
level has also shown steady traction from 43 per cent in 2001 to 71 per
cent in 2011, with average mastery level of 62 per cent, and an annual
average growth rate of 6.5 per cent. It is important to note, though,
that when compared to the supplemental sitting, students seem to do
better, gaining an average mastery level of 72 per cent. Given the
fluctuations over the period for supplemental sittings, however, the
average growth rate was lower - 3.5 per cent.

Looking
at the performance of students by gender, female students continued to
outperform their male counterparts and the national average over the
period. The average performance for female students was 71.9 per cent
compared to 49.2 per cent for males, and a national average of 62.3 per
cent. At this rate of improvement, meeting the national target is
questionable.

Since the implementation of the policy,
there has been marginal increase. While this is expected as the
education system recalibrates and builds its capacity to affect the
desired outcomes, there have been cutbacks in provisions to the national
campaign.

Student Performance in Grade Four Numeracy
Test

In 2009, the Grade Four Numeracy Test was
administered nationally. The mastery levels increased from 42 per cent
in 2009 to 49 per cent in 2011, with a decline - 38 per cent - in
2010.

Literacy intervention

The
Grade Four Numeracy Test at the national level has not benefited from
the same level of focus and attention as literacy interventions;
however, given the poor results over the years, traction is building at
the Ministry of Education to establish a robust and responsive
initiative to address student underperformance in this area. To date, a
national literacy coordinator has been recruited and a numeracy strategy
has been launched. A greater sense of urgency is
needed.

Looking to the Future - Some Important
Considerations

I believe as we go forward, we need to
face some realities: improving the education system is not an event, but
a process; it is also challenging, but not impossible.

I draw attention to the McKinsey
Report
(2010), which describes how the world's most improved
school system keeps getting better because it provides the assurance
that education reform and school improvement, despite their complexities
and challenges, can and do occur. This is provided that the critical
elements required for the improvement are in
place.

Following on this, some recommended strategies
to further enhance the efforts under way are:

1) All
the stakeholders must renew their commitment to ensuring that all our
children have access to quality education, and that learning
opportunities are maximised as we nurture future patriotic,
civic-minded, and productive Jamaican citizens;

2)
While policy prescriptions are critical to defining the strategic
direction of the Ministry of Education, equally important is the need to
focus on teaching and learning in the classroom, otherwise called the
"instructional core". According to
Harvard professor, Richard Elmore, "The instructional
core - the essential interaction between the teacher, student and
content that creates the basis of learning - is the first place that
schools should look to improve student learning. This can be achieved by
building the capacity of principals and teachers to become more
effective instructional leaders and practitioners. This must be
supported by the provisions necessary for principals to lead and
teachers to facilitate learning.

3) A data-driven
culture and a responsive system of accountability and support need to be
entrenched in the Ministry of Education and schools. In so doing, the
system will be better able to develop targeted interventions, develop
standards and mechanisms to track progress, make smart policy decisions
and timely programmatic responses, and allocate resources
effectively.

4) Given the level of performance of our
male students, I strongly believe that we need to intensify our focus on
gender and education so as to develop gender-sensitive teaching that
would result in the improvement of our male students while ensuring that
no child gets left behind.

5) The core function of
the school is to ensure student learning; however, there are non-school
factors that negatively affect student preparedness and engagement in
the classroom. One of the prevalent issues that affect many of our
children is poverty. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with
Poverty in Mind
, expounds on the impact of poverty on the
brain and suggests measures such as a rich, balanced learning
environment and caring relationships, which schools can employ to build
the resilience of students and improve their academic achievement and
life chances. It is against this background that I strongly suggest that
the multi-sectoral approach be implemented to support schools in
meeting the diverse needs of their students.

6)
Students must be encouraged to become self-directed learners. By this I
mean student development and empowerment initiatives should be
implemented in schools that teach students the attitudes, work ethics,
and behaviours, that lead to success. I encourage schools to adopt
school-development plans where students, with their teachers, set
targets and are helped to monitor their progress. Parents must also be
involved in this initiative.

5) There is growing
evidence suggesting that parents play a critical role in the education
of their children (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Henderson
& Berla, 1995; Henderson, 2002). Moreover, the literature
suggests that the school and parents are crucial in the life of the
child, and the impact is greater if parents and schools partner. It is
for this reason that I encourage the MOE to advance the provisions being
made to establish the Parenting Commission and the other supports that
would promote meaningful engagement of parents in the education of their
children. Parents need to do their part at their child's school, and
teachers would do well with the support.

This menu of
options is not exhaustive; it is just food for
thought.

Grace-Camille Munroe, PhD, is an eductaional

researcher/consultant.