Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fixing the Education System

Fixing our education system is a necessary priority. With the dedicated members of the Board of Education, the enthusiasm of Education Minister Jennifer Smith, and no shortage of resources, we are well poised to rehabilitate this ailing system. We will get nowhere, however, unless some tough yet necessary decisions are made and within a timetable that suggests urgency.

To begin with, we need to know what the skill sets and competencies are for all students, particularly for English and mathematics. Private school students need to be tested alongside public school students for this to be realised. Under the Education Act, the Minister of Education has the power to require this testing but not a single Minister has ever done so. We need this information to know how are students are doing and to identify the appropriate intervention modalities. 

It may be that the Cambridge Curriculum, now adopted by the public schools and a number of private schools, can provide the basis for a common test. Alongside this we need to cease the Terra Nova test, immediately.Every year teachers expend valuable time preparing students for a useless exam at considerable cost to the taxpayer that does not measure student ability. It merely measures their performance against “similar” groups of students in the United States, a country which has been underperforming in this area for a generation. 

The most important academic influence on a student is likely to be their teacher. It is remarkable how the concern or lack thereof exhibited by a teacher can so dramatically influence a student’s development. I saw this when I was a student; and I saw the infectious enthusiasm of so many teachers at West Pembroke Primary when my three sons attended. But for every three or four dedicated teachers who work hard to educate our young people, we have one teacher who should not be in the system; they lack drive, disrespect or resent students, and seem more concerned about the vacation schedule than student performance. Teachers and principals already know who these teachers are and they need to be expelled. 

Principals are the education leaders on the ground. They set the tone for schools in terms of standards, discipline and overall performance. Rather than have principals spend a great deal of time in meetings with fellow principals, Ministry staff and others, they should be largely left alone to run their schools based on a set of goals agreed by them and the Ministry. Annual assessments should be made based on the extent to which the clearly measurable goals have been met and decisions taken accordingly. As with teachers, underperforming principals, for the sake of our students, should not be allowed to continue as principals. 

Any serious effort to radically improve our education system has to take a hard look at the Ministry itself. Our challenge here is not that there are resource constraints with respect to allocation; rather we have a challenge regarding resource obfuscation.While I am confident every penny can be properly accounted for, I share the view of many in believing too much is spent on too many for which there is little to show. We could shave the education budget by 20 percent, reduce the staff by 20 percent and there would be no discernable impact on student performance. The challenge for the Ministry is to redirect its efforts in a tangible way toward student success and to shed its excess. 

Before we restructured our public education system in the mid-1990s, the biggest criticism was that it was elitist, pushing a minority of students to professional qualifications and relegating the majority to either technical or unskilled jobs. Our challenge today is far more complex and the consequences of not getting it right far more onerous. It is a challenge we have not succeeded at for 15 years and we do not have time on our side. As we look to the Ministry of Education to lead on education, and rightly so, we must too see what role we can play. After all, we all will share in its success.