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Editorial | Education in crisis: declare emergency

Published:Thursday | July 11, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The distraction being endured by the Ministry of Education as a result of the various scandals at agencies under its control, including the Caribbean Maritime University, pales in comparison to the real crisis in education.

The predictably poor performance of a very large percentage of students in the newly minted Primary Exit Profile (PEP) examinations is part of a larger problem in education. Academic underperformance is a huge contributor to Jamaica’s serious crime problem and low productivity.

Only 41 per cent of the 41,000 grade-six students sitting the PEP were proficient in mathematics. Proficiency only requires a grade of 50 per cent or above. Proficiency was also below 50 per cent for science. It was 45 per cent in language arts and only 37 per cent in social studies.

The PEP results simply confirmed what the country knew from the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) and the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) results previously: that the pre-secondary schooling system is not serving the interests of a large proportion of our children in rural and poor communities. Many of these children enter the system with a very high probability of failure because of resource challenges, inadequate parental support, poor-quality teaching, as well as social stressors ranging from dysfunctional transportation to hunger.

Educational outcomes are generally based on a multiplicity of factors beyond teaching capacity. It is for these reasons why it is often surprising how defensive ministers of education become in presenting the performance of students at the grade-six examinations. Each minor annual percentage improvement for a subject is highlighted with much fanfare. Any decline is seen as an embarrassment and is explained with a promise of future improvements.

Moving from CEE to GSAT and now to PEP has not changed the student-allocation process significantly. Like previous years, the top traditional high schools got their quota of students with the top grades. There were also the usual heartbreaks for students not progressing to schools of choice. This situation is not likely to change anytime soon.

If there is a national long-term commitment to PEP, the Government needs to provide the necessary resources over the long term to ensure success. All the problems of the education system cannot be fixed simultaneously. Choices will have to be made and priorities set. Energetic and visionary leadership needs to be in place.

National education emergency

To tackle the crisis, the Government needs to start with recognising the magnitude of the problem and declare a national education emergency. There should be enough studies already in place detailing the depth of the crisis, the solutions to be pursued, and the kind of resources needed. If these are not already known, the Ministry of Education would have failed spectacularly and would signal that the crisis is deeper than we imagine.

Declaring an education emergency is not a trivial matter and should only be done if the State is ready to adopt a whole-of-government approach. There would have to be an action plan developed with clear strategies, objectives and targets. Four early priority areas present themselves for action: teacher quality, curriculum, transportation, and nutrition.

The Government can start by listening to the teachers at the primary, all-age, and preparatory levels who, in October 2018, indicated that they lacked the skills to teach the new curriculum and were deficient in critical thinking. Correcting this deficiency will take significant resources and time. It requires long-term commitment.

Solving the national education crisis is fundamental to tackling many other structural problems and ensuring long-term prosperity.