Martin Henry, Contributor
A summer of discontent in the education sector has passed and 'September morning' is here. The nation's children, more than 600,000 of them, return to early childhood, primary and secondary schools tomorrow morning. Many of the tertiary-level youth started last week.
Summer is the time for GSAT results, CSEC results, and national handwringing over those results. It is the time of job hunting by new teachers and older ones seeking new employment, of back-to-school expenses, and, of course, it is the time of the Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) annual conference held while teachers are on eight weeks of paid summer break plus three at Christmas and two at Easter.
Summer-spoiling anxiety for both students and parents gave way to tears of joy and of sorrow as the GSAT results were released. Placement remains a burning issue as the sins of history ignite each summer. In its rush to expand secondary education, the country has built a very unequal secondary-school system starting with the 50 junior secondary schools 'built by Labour' with World Bank money, which became part of the debt stock of the country.
Renaming and upgrading have not transformed these schools into the quality of the sought-after traditional high schools. And flinging money at them will not solve the problem. Unless both staff and student intake are equitised, the two types of schools will never be equal. And therein lies the rub. Every parent wants a perceived, or known, 'good' school for their little GSAT-ter.
As I have been pointing out from day one in 1999, the three criteria for placement into secondary schools from GSAT results are mutually contradictory and cannot be reconciled. The three criteria are choice, performance, and location of student. Students choose 'top' schools.
Performance determines choice being granted, so top schools will continue to cream off top students. Top schools are not necessarily located in students' area of residence, so assignments made by choice and performance must mean downgrading the location factor and permitting the trek across town and parish. Emphasising location must mean overriding choice and performance and logically end with the model of being assigned to the nearest school.
This is a real Gordian knot. The slicing through the knot with a sword 'solution', as Alexander the Great did, is to randomly assign students within a broad enough geographical region to the schools available there. This would pull down top schools but pull up weaker schools to meet in the performance middle. And would unleash national bangarang.
A better solution
A more patient solution is to narrow the performance gap among primary-level students, including the historical gap between government primary and private prep school students which led to Edwin Allen's 70:30 ratio for high-school placements from those two sources. And to improve resources, staffing, teaching and management in the non-traditional high schools.
The minister of education is adamant that GSAT is to be revised to include testing a wider range of skills, including critical thinking. While scores are inching up, there remain serious concerns also about students being able to express themselves in the language of instruction as assessed in Communication Task.
Thinking and communication are fundamental learning and life skills which are particularly weakly developed in the Jamaican school system all the way to graduate level where I meet the deficiencies in work I do. But, Minister, where are the competent teachers to come from, when teachers themselves are products of the education system and are predominantly drawn from the lower end of the success range, partly as a result of how the Government pays the profession?
The CSEC results follow the GSAT results in the summer. While scores in the benchmark English language and mathematics are inching up, performance is still in the pits and is a cause of national angst. While large numbers are failing, significant numbers don't even get a chance to fail, as they are not entered for the CSEC as an external school-leaving examination.
Ranking schools has again riled up people this summer, including the minister, who apparently believes that semantics can alter situation. So if schools are not labelled 'failing', they will stop failing.
Ranking is perfectly reasonable and rational. If schools enter students for the standardised external exam, it is perfectly reasonable and rational to ask how well did each school perform in the exams measured by the grades students received? Explaining and then changing the performance ranking are separate and different matters and are not necessarily the concern of the ranker.
Government should rank schools
Indeed, as a public obligation and duty, it is the Government itself which should be ranking its schools. I have argued for years that the National Assessment Programme at the primary level, and the CXC exams at the secondary level, provide comparative data on the performance of not just students, but of schools and even individual teachers which should be made publicly available to inform the rational decisions of stakeholders in the system, not least of all, the students and their parents.
Coming out of the annual summer debate over CSEC performance is the need to strengthen math education. The minister had previously alarmed us by telling the country that only 10 per cent of math teachers have formal qualifications in the subject itself. The ministry now has a bright national coordinator of mathematics education to drive improvements, but I am not sure it is such a good idea to insist that all principals must, in the future, be math-competent.
A much better idea has come from a math educator at the University of the West Indies to use primary education to build solid skills in language and mathematics as the core of learning. I have been arguing this for years. When students master these skills early and the critical thinking behind the skills, nothing can stop them.
Teachers were in the spotlight throughout the summer. The ministry's act-of-kindness employment fair was a flop, from the reports. The reality is hitting home. Some 2,000 trained teachers have not yet found placement, indicating either an oversupply, or a distribution problem, or both. Government has no obligation to provide jobs for teachers and no authority to transfer them. The ministry has been offering to accommodate voluntary transfers.
The role of the teachers' colleges and the quality of their products have also appeared on the radar screen this summer, but not sufficiently sharply. As usual, a minister of government is prepared to ride two horses in opposite directions on an issue. There is an oversupply of teachers and there are quality concerns, but the colleges will be left undisturbed in their design and functions.
The market is signalling that the days of the small, one-discipline, one-profession college are numbered. The future, rationally constructed instead of determined by sentiment and history, is going to see education departments attached to universities for teacher training, as is the case in much of the rest of the world.
This will also allow, if we wish, the correction of another major problem in teacher education: insufficient subject content to make the teacher an expert in a discipline other than 'education'. The ideal subject teacher is an expert in something which she is then taught to teach effectively.
We are well aware of the student side of poor performance in the CSEC. The teacher side deserves equal attention. Remember, only 10 per cent of math teachers are mathematicians!
But the battle of the summer was the dogfight taken to the minister of education by the Jamaica Teachers' Association and its on-off-on presidential candidate who ended up winning the ballot for president-elect. The big battle was over the minister's proposal delivered in the Sectoral Debate in May to adjust some of the terms and conditions of service of teachers in austerity times and to better align teaching to learning in the school system. Study leave was one of the burning issues.
As I confidently predicted, the na´ve minister taking on the JTA would be abandoned by his party in which the teachers' union has founding interest and continued attachment.
My expressed fear that the fight would sideline the many other substantive matters of educational reform which the minister articulated in his May 15 contribution to the Sectoral Debate seems to have come to pass. Even the minister seems to have forgotten his own "call to action" speech.
As the back-to-school shopping frenzy rose to full strength, the minister cautioned against burdensome booklists. What primary- and secondary-level students need are a few core texts to be supplemented by good libraries, great teachers, and increasingly by information and communication technology sources.
Then the minister mounted the old two-horse policy on auxiliary fees which ministers before across administrations have ridden. The fees must be paid as the schools need the money to operate effectively, but no child must be turned away for not paying - and the Government is not about to make a direct payment on behalf of any child unable to pay. Very irrational for bright people - and unethical as well - while the schools are left with a budget basket to carry water.
Whether Audley Shaw wins or loses in his bid for the leadership of the JLP, whether we pass or fail IMF tests, whether the Goat Islands finally become the home of the Chinese-financed logistics hub, or there is a hub at all, the current minister of education is quite right that we need better returns on investment in education to produce more of the skills of mind and hand required to run a modern and prospering economy.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com and email@example.com.