Editorial | JTA candidates must address education crisis
The length of the term of president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) and that organisation’s unique executive structure are pertinent matters for debate by people vying for the leadership of the JTA. But a more urgent issue is the vision being offered for education in Jamaica, including ideas for resolving the crisis in the sector caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These matters, therefore, must be part of the agenda for the five candidates – Leighton Johnson, Anthony Kennedy, La Sonja Harrison, Timoy Shaw and Eaton McNamee – who are seeking the presidency of the association. The message must not be geared only to the 21,000 or so members of the JTA, who will be eligible to vote in next month’s election. Their constituency, really, is all stakeholders in the education system, including the parents and guardians of the more than half a million students in the island’s primary and secondary schools.
Under the JTA’s curious governance mechanism, when teachers cast their votes for either of the five people on this year’s ballot, they won’t be voting for the association’s next president, but for the one after that. So the election is for the president-elect, who will be in-wait for a year, until the term of the sitting president comes to an end. The next president will assume office at the JTA’s annual conference.
At that time the retiring president will become the immediate past president, a role of significance in the JTA governance arrangements. He then becomes third in the order of precedence in the organisation, behind the sitting president and the president-elect, and has automatic seats on the association’s key bodies for at least two years.
Therefore, while the president’s job is only for a year, the individual is potentially influential in the organisation for at least three years – starting the year he becomes president-elect and joins a sort of management triumvirate, with the president and the immediate past president, and for the year after his presidency.
EXTENSION OF TERM
This unique arrangement notwithstanding, a term of a single year makes it, as Mr Johnson pointed out, potentially difficult for a president to carry through his agenda. For not only is he ineligible for immediate re-election, the incoming president may have other ideas or different areas of emphasis than his predecessor. In this regard, the contenders for the election, to varying degrees, support an extension of the president’s term – a matter that would require a vote to adjust the organisation’s articles of association.
It is not our sense, however, that any of the candidates is aggressively pursuing that agenda. Which is perhaps not a bad thing. For it is not our perception that there is anything in particular or substantive that any of them would do with an extended presidency.
Thus far, they have all spoken broadly about improving education and the environment within which teachers work, which, we assume, has an emphasis of pushing for better pay. That, of course, is OK. What, however, is lacking are specific ideas about how the education system should look and what is required to get it to that desired place. There is nothing, too, about the accountability of teachers.
For instance, in the nearly year and a half since the onset of the coronavirus, Jamaica’s education system has been severely disrupted. There has been very limited in-class, face-to-face teaching and learning. The online substitute has had only limited success. The education minister, Fayval Williams, reported that schools have, during the pandemic, lost contact with 120,000 students, which is roughly 29 per cent of all primary and secondary students. And if all those students were at the primary level, it would be 59 per cent of the enrolment in government institutions.
This is a catastrophe to which the JTA, in its public discourse, has not sufficiently applied its mind. It ought to be at the top of the agenda of anyone seeking the leadership of that association. What is their strategy for addressing the education deficit that has developed since COVID-19?
Yet, Jamaica’s education system was in crisis before the pandemic. Nearly 40 per cent of primary students who transition to high schools are ill-prepared for secondary education, and of the 60 per cent who are deemed ready, a large portion is only tenuously so. Further, after five years of secondary education, no more than 20 per cent of the students pass five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects, including maths and English, at a single sitting.
These are profound problems on whose solution the JTA and its president are expected to have leadership roles, which is more than demanding higher pay for teachers. Indeed, a transformative president would, among his solutions, propose indexing pay increases to education outcomes. We would like to hear what are the expectations of the aspirants to the JTA’s leadership of the Government’s task force on education, led by Professor Orlando Patterson. We remind: the JTA’s constituency is not only teachers; it is all of us.