Public Affairs - Ministry wants all school leavers sitting CSEC by 2017
Grace McLean, Guest Columnist
IN HIS November 16, 2014, article 'The 70:30 Education System', Gleaner columnist and former prime minister of Jamaica Edward Seaga lamented that only 30 per cent of the grade 11 age cohort exiting the secondary education system annually is able to attain the benchmark of passes in five subjects in the Caribbean Secondary School Certificate (CSEC) examination, leaving a significant 70 per cent of the cohort falling behind.
This trend, Mr Seaga notes, has had, and will continue to have, a crippling effect on the nation's growth and development.
The Ministry of Education shares Mr Seaga's concerns and uses this opportunity to inform the public of some of the strategies and programmes we have put in place to improve student achievement and national education outcomes. In summary, these interventions include:
- Setting the target for 100 per cent of the school-leaving cohort to sit five external examinations by 2017;
- Provision of specialist coaches and in-service training to improve the pedagogic skills of teachers of English language and mathematics;
- Training of school leaders to effectively manage the delivery of the mathematics curriculum;
- Establishment of new guidelines to improve the qualification and diagnose the knowledge gap of persons being admitted to mathematics programmes in teacher-training institutions;
- Strategic deployment of resources to most needy schools to improve education outcomes in all subjects.
Improvements in Literacy
The Ministry of Education has given significant attention to literacy development. This has resulted in more than a 30 percentage-point increase in literacy mastery rates over the past 15 years. Our children are doing better today than ever before. In the year 2000, students' performance in literacy at the grade four level was 47 per cent, and in 2014, it is 77.4 per cent. This is just 7.6 per cent below the Millennium Development Goal of 85 per cent by 2015. A challenge remains with our boys, who trail our girls by 20 percentage points in the mastery of literacy.
As a response to this challenge, come next January, the ministry will implement a strategic intervention plan to assist classroom teachers to address more effectively the literacy and other educational needs of male students in particular in the short and long term. This special initiative will provide direct support to approximately 450 primary schools through the targeted deployment of 72 reading specialists, who will coach teachers and provide clinical support in reading assessment and intervention for struggling readers. The ministry's support of literacy development is based on the fact that without mastery of these skills, students will be hampered in their performance in other subjects.
The same holds true for mastery of numeracy and mathematics concepts, which is necessary for students to perform well in other subjects that require critical thinking and analytical skills. As Mr Seaga pointed out, mathematics is unpopular and "unfortunately so because (the subject) is the central source of much of the information that guides our lives and makes critical national decisions".
The 2014 results of the Grade Four Numeracy Test show 58 per cent of the age cohort attaining mastery. This means that Jamaica will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of 85 per cent of grade four students attaining mastery in numeracy concepts by 2015. The ministry has set a revised target date of 2018. The attainment of these targets is dependent on the successful implementation of a number of strategic interventions in the education system.
National Maths Plan
At the secondary level, only 10 per cent of mathematics teachers are trained to teach the subject to grade 11, while at the primary level, a significant percentage of our teachers are challenged by the content. Recognising the significance of teacher and teaching quality to student performance, the Ministry of Education has introduced the National Mathematics Policy Guidelines and the accompanying National Mathematics Strategic Plan. The mathematics policy establishes minimum standards and guidelines for the teaching and learning of mathematics at all levels of the education system. These include the following:
Teachers colleges can now only accept students with passes in CSEC mathematics for entry to primary education and secondary mathematics education programmes;
A diagnostic test is now being administered to all incoming early childhood, primary, and secondary mathematics education students, and results are being used to provide targeted support to individual student teachers. As a result of the data generated from the diagnostic test in 2014, the Ministry of Education is preparing to partner with all teacher-training institutions to strengthen their plans to address the significant conceptual gaps that have been identified among the cohort of new student teachers;
Teacher-training programmes have been, and are being, redesigned to ensure that adequate attention is given to mathematics both in terms of content knowledge and methodology. Amendments are being made to the University Council of Jamaica's standards for mathematics teacher education programmes, and by September 2015, all teacher-training institutions will be required to comply with the credit hour standards that have been established for mathematics education programmes.
In addition, the Ministry of Education has developed and facilitated a training programme designed to strengthen the capacity of mathematics teacher-educators. This is to ensure they are able to provide adequate support to their student teachers in learning not just the content, but the appropriate methodologies that support meaningful learning.
Deployment of Maths Coaches
The strategies discussed so far are, for the most part, designed to affect new teachers. However, the Ministry of Education is cognisant of the need to provide support to the more than 8,000 primary and 1,500 secondary teachers who engage students in learning mathematics. The deployment of 45 mathematics coaches to 55 secondary schools and 32 primary schools in September 2014 is the main mechanism that the ministry is using to strengthen the capacity of in-service teachers. A coach's duties during the one-year engagement include:
- Conducting frequent lesson observations;
- Providing support in curriculum management and lesson planning;
- Helping teachers to implement new and more effective teaching strategies through demonstration lessons and co-teaching sessions;
- Providing hands-on guidance to schools in the development of assessment tools and ensuring that they are effective in evaluating the knowledge, skills, and competencies that students have gained.
Recognising the importance of quality leadership in improving student performance, the National Mathematics Programme joined with the National College for Educational Leadership in the development and delivery of the Mathematics Leadership Training Programme for school leaders. The training programme is designed to, among other things, develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies they will need to effectively manage the mathematics curriculum, support effective instruction, and implement quality assessment practices. To date, training has been conducted for 291 high school principals and heads of department as well as 620 primary school principals.
Importantly, the ministry has mandated school leaders to ensure that the teaching of mathematics is allocated maximum time in the delivery of the curriculum and that students are not short-changed in being taught this subject.
In implementing the strategic interventions, the ministry has targeted marginal or low-performing schools. The May-June 2014 CSEC results show an 18 percentage-point increase in mathematics passes over the previous year and a negligible increase in English language passes among 31 high schools that traditionally had a significant percentage of their students attaining grade four in their CSEC results. The ministry is also providing targeted support to 132 of the weakest-performing schools at the primary and secondary levels through Operation Turn Around, an initiative now in its second year.
Under this initiative, school results are analysed in select subjects and the intervention is designed to meet the specific needs of the institutions. Support includes upgrade of laboratories, capacity building of teachers, meetings with parents, addressing special education needs of students, and addressing the behaviour-related issues of some students. The May-June 2014 CSEC results showed the weakest-performing secondary schools obtaining a 13 percentage points increase in maths passes and marginal improvement in English language over 2013. We anticipate that the improvement observed in the CSEC 2014 results will become a trend.
The main objective of the interventions outlined above is ultimately to increase to 100 per cent the proportion of students in the age cohort successfully sitting an external examination.
Grace McLean, PhD, is the chief education officer in the Ministry of Education.