Mon | May 10, 2021

Editorial | Attack CARICOM’s crisis with cross-border teaching

Published:Thursday | April 15, 2021 | 12:10 AM

Last week’s disclosure of the findings of a survey showing that the bulk of trainees in early-childhood education do not want to teach mathematics has been heralded as a revelation of an imminent crisis.

Rather, it is a reconfirmation of our failure to make a breakthrough on a long-standing problem. Or put another way, the crisis in mathematics in Jamaica is pretty old.

We are not certain that there is a quick fix to this conundrum, or that the island’s policymakers have been aggressive enough in implementing the various recommendations, from many studies over several decades, on how to address this problem, which, from our point of view, demands new, creative thinking.

In this regard, and in a perverse way, the disruption of education by the COVID-19 pandemic may offer one potential solution to this dilemma, especially if the region takes on board two important recommendations in the Persaud Commission report on how to kick-start the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) post-pandemic economy.

The study by Corey Williamson and Shaneille Samuels, the former maths instructor at the Shortwood Teachers’ College, found that while 76 per cent of the survey’s prospective teachers had very positive attitudes towards mathematics, nearly half (45 per cent) of those who were in the first year of their training were dead set against teaching the subject, even to the young children they are being prepared to instruct.

That position softens to 28 per cent among second-year students. However, it jumps to 43 per cent among those in their third year of study. Thirty per cent of those in year four held a similar position. The same per cent of that cohort was undecided. “So, if you put the undecided and those who don’t want to go and teach it (mathematics), that’s about 60 per cent, and that is a little bit concerning,” said Mr Williamson.

Poor outcomes in mathematics

Largely so, we would say. But the concern, as we noted, is not new. Jamaica’s education literature is replete with surveys, analyses, recommendations and initiatives on how to deal with the poor outcomes in mathematics, which, notably, is worse than the generally weak performances in other subjects. The efforts, in the past decade, have included the deployment of specialist mathematics coaches in primary and secondary schools, the holding of seminars and workshops for maths teachers, and well as calls for less abstract ways of teaching the subject, as was highlighted in a 2019 paper by Northern Caribbean University lecturer Paul Bourne.

The problem, however, persists. More than 40 per cent of Jamaica’s students start their secondary education without reaching their expected level in maths. At high school, the norm is for more than half (52.3 per cent in 2020) of the students who write the Caribbean Examination Council’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) paper not to gain a passing grade.

This problem with maths is not solely Jamaican. In 2019, for instance, of the 78,543 students from 19 territories who wrote CSEC maths, only 36,105, approximately 46 per cent, received passing grades. The previous year, roughly 49 per cent of the 79,850 students received passing grades – one, two or three.

Digital divide

For Jamaican educators and students, the past year has been a struggle with online teaching and learning. It has highlighted the digital divide between institutions and students – a line drawn starkly along economic and social lines. It is urgent, in the circumstances, that Jamaica find a way back to the physical classroom. Jamaica’s problem, to a lesser or greater degree, is replicated across the region.

But as important as in-class delivery of education is, and will remain, the online instruction that was forced on us by COVID-19 is not an initiative to be reserved. It must continue alongside the classroom exercise. Supplemental online education and distance teaching, however, can only improve, and come into its own, with increased and cheaper access to broadband in Jamaica and elsewhere in CARICOM. Which brings us to our suggestion – the utilisation of the best teachers in mathematics, or any other subject, across the region.

It is quite possible for a gifted maths teacher in Port of Spain, for example, to be employed by a school in Mandeville, or vice versa, and be supported by an in-class teaching assistant, who is open to that master teacher’s regimen – a transference of skills.

Such arrangements would be facilitated by implementation of two other elements of the Persaud Commission report: one of which is the lowering of the barrier to the free movement of labour in the Caribbean, as part of establishing CARICOM as a genuine single market and economy (CSME). Another is accelerating efforts to create, within the CSME, a single digital economy in the community, including the elimination of friction to moving data across borders.

In St Vincent, the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbated by the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano, which has displaced several thousand people. Many of them are children, whose schooling is being further disrupted. Teachers, in some cases, may have been forced to seek shelter outside of the country. This is one area, it seems to us, where experimenting in cross-border online teaching, involving both teachers and students, has great potential and obvious worth.