Honest government self-evaluation
Peter Espeut, Columnist
One department of the Ministry of Education that appears to be working efficiently is the National Education Inspectorate (NEI), which assesses the performance of primary and secondary schools run by the Government.
Over the last four years, the NEI has assessed 803 of the 954 schools in the public-school system, evaluating 129 (115 primary and 14 secondary) between September 2013 and March 2014. The NEI should be able to assess the remaining 151 schools in the coming year, suggesting that it is possible for the performance of every government school to be evaluated at least every five years. This is commendable.
Of the 803 schools so far assessed, 361 (45 per cent) have been found to be 'effective', while 442 (55 per cent) were determined to be 'ineffective'. [Note that they no longer call them 'failing schools']. The minister sums it up this way (as quoted in yesterday's Gleaner): "This means we have sufficient evidence to show that the level of performance systemwide is mediocre, with the primary schools lagging behind the secondary ones."
It has long been asserted that the Jamaican school system is ailing, but those observations have been qualitative and anecdotal. Now we have a systemwide objective and quantitative assessment that confirms what we have long felt. And what is more remarkable, this assessment has been conducted by the Government itself!
Over the years, government self-assessment has tended to be political eulogy and self-congratulation, designed to produce thumping on parliamentary desks, and propaganda for re-election, rather than honest objective and scientific assessment. The cynics will claim that the real picture in education is much, much worse, and that this government self-evaluation is a grand cover-up. At least we can be certain that the real picture is no rosier than the one the NEI has painted.
Yesterday's Gleaner quotes Minister Thwaites: "Effective schools were defined by having strong leadership, a clear school mission, quality teaching and learning, a safe and orderly climate, transparent and effective monitoring of students' progress, and high expectations and parental involvement." This, of course, is the same formula for an effective government ministry: strong leadership, clear mission, good middle management, honest performance evaluation, and good stakeholder involvement.
Honest performance evaluation is important at all levels in government. I hope the Ministry of Education is as good at evaluating the performance of ministry staff - at Heroes Circle and in the regional offices - as it is at evaluating the performance of schools. As a school board chairman for some decades now, I have many difficulties with Ministry of Education staff, not the least being that they rarely return telephone calls. It is not only the schools that have to improve their customer service.
Strong school leadership begins with strong school boards, appointed not because of their political loyalties, but because of their expertise and their commitment to quality education. I suspect that boards of church-owned schools are of a higher quality than those of government-owned schools. I would love to see a breakdown of the performance of the 803 schools assessed so far by the NEI, according to school ownership. NEI, can you help?
If there is a correlation, the ministry should re-examine its mechanism for appointing school boards. For a while, I sat on the committee that recommended board appointments to the minister, and I resigned in protest at the political bias I saw. Recommendations for chairmen and board members were received from the principal, the education officers, and the member of parliament. The reflex reaction was to recommend the MP's nominee. It is my strong belief that politically appointed school boards do not perform, and drag the system down.
The minister was on Wednesday quoted as saying that the school performance data shows strong correlation between (1) the quality of school leadership and the quality of teaching support for students, as well as (2) the quality of school leadership and curriculum and enhancement programmes. Quality school leadership (school boards, principals and senior teachers) will inspire the teachers, lift their performance, and keep it up. Let's get the politics out of education!
It would be good if all government ministries and agencies had similar inspectorates, working assiduously to determine how well public money is being spent. How are the clinics doing, and the police in their various stations, and the fire services? Is our level of public health in particular communities improving or declining? And what about our levels of national security? Is the quality of our natural environment - wildlife and ecosystems - improving or declining? Is the Ministry of the Environment performing well, or is it ineffective? It's all about leadership!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist.