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EDITORIAL - The case for teacher accountability

Published:Wednesday | July 30, 2014 | 7:00 AM

It's not the kind of thing that generally energises the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) or excites engagement from the teachers' union. We fear the coming presidency of the querulous Doran Dixon might worsen the JTA's antipathy to thoughtful reflection.

Nonetheless, we hope that the teachers' union finds the will to transcend itself and take seriously a new study by the World Bank on the impact of teachers on educational outcomes in Latin America and the Caribbean, leading to a serious conversation with its members about how they can improve their performance and deliver on their obligation to Jamaican students.

But whatever the posture of the JTA, the education ministry should find in the document support for an evidence-based drive to improve teacher quality and accountability, about which the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, often speaks, but which we are not certain he possesses the steely commitment to adequately deliver.

Jamaica's Government spends more than J$70 billion a year on education, or nearly 15 per cent of its overall budget. That rises to nearly a quarter of all government spending when debt-servicing costs are eliminated. Few will seriously claim that we get value for money.

At grade four, around 40 per cent of the children have not achieved age-level competence in literacy and numeracy and, at grade six, a similar number are not ready for secondary education. At the end of five years of high school, despite pre-exam screening out of very weak students, nearly 60 per cent of students fail at maths in the CXC exams and nearly 40 per cent at English. Less than a fifth of the students pass five subjects in a single sitting.

That is not good enough to create a modern, competitive workforce. The JTA tends to blame everything for these shortcomings, except teacher performance.

This newspaper agrees that factors other than teachers affect education outcomes, but as the World Bank study points out, research over the last decade has "built new evidence that once children get into schools, no single factor is as critical as the quality of teachers". Indeed, it is documented, the researchers point out, that "students with the best teachers advance 1.5 grade levels or more a year, while those with the worst teachers master 0.5 year of curriculum, or less".

Tough decisions

The issue is how, in Jamaica's case, we get the best people as teachers and ensure that they perform at their best. For this, there is no single or easy solution. It will require tough decisions, including, we insist, holding teachers and principals accountable, incentivising performance and being willing to weed out poor teachers.

Take the case of the efficient use of class time. The global best practice, for the best education outcomes, is that at least 85 per cent of class time should be spent on instruction. In Jamaica, the average is 61 per cent. Our teachers spend 28 per cent on class management, nearly double the best-practice benchmark of 15 per cent. Another 11 per cent of instruction time is frittered away, including teachers being absent or engaging in non-teaching activities.

The World Bank report alludes to a jurisdiction to which we have in the past drawn attention of how incentives to, and accountability by, teachers can improve outcomes, Washington DC - which in three years moved from being among the worst US school districts to a fast-improving one.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.