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.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Brown, thanks for your thought provoking article. It follows along very common lines of logic that I have heard espoused in political circles quite freely. I offer several key ideas, which I didn't read in your viewpoint.

    The key to improving any education system around the world lies in improving teacher quality and effectiveness. While performance management addresses people not fit for a system, it doesn't address the quintessential problem in Bermuda education -- increasing the professional capacity of our teaching force. This is precisely why the Bermuda Education Review team employed the call, "reprofessionalization". We must build the capacity of our current school leaders to 'reprofessionalize' instruction in their buildings. It is all well and good to refer to 1980s education but one has to recognize the 2010 education paradigms have thrust higher expectations for both content and what students can do with that content. Leaving principals alone sounds powerful but is not sound educational practice, by itself, in any high performing country. Autonomy should not be confused with collaboration. Principals desire collaboration with fellow principals and fellow professionals to grow professionally. Remember, capacity is the key. We need to increase collaboration in every conceivable way, but around a common goal: increasing the quality of instruction in every classroom.

    I would suggest that education reform has always come at the impetus of political changes and shifts in policy -top down, rather than from ground up movements of people. In short we have a tendency in this country to want to restructure (the word reprofessionalization is very different from this). In your comments you mentioned qualities of the Minister and Board. No doubt because of your vantage point. I humbly suggest that this is a topdown look at change. What happens if we consider what change experts see as more impactful -- ground up change. The key to educational change in this country lies in moving teachers, moving classrooms. It will require us to think more differently than our history has suggested. It is the one reason I argue that we have seen little movement and public involvement in Public education. After the review the focus was on changing law and policy, and restructuring power. I suggest that your OpED has the same focus: It sees changes as happening only when we restructure from the top down. It reflects trickle-down reform, which has not worked in this country, any more than trickle down economics has. Yet in other countries, this doesn't automatically equate to shrinking budgets. While I would agree in being financially prudent. We should increase "targeted" funds in areas like science and mathematics, the currencies of the 21st century. Our economic partners around the world understand this. While you get no argument from me around careful financial management, we must be careful while we are lamenting about the past and current, that we forget to envision the future for Bermudians.

    Which brings me to my last point. The biggest concern of the mid-1990s was not simply elitism. This is far too oversimplistic. Rather it was the marginalization of too many Bermudians. In the mid-1990s we were in the beginning throes of a housing crisis, the 1994 Newman report detailed the marginalization of Black men in the country and the country had only just begun to see itself past the 1990/91 recession in the US. So on one hand we look back and romanticize the past, but we can't call and education system excellent if so little of our population is experiencing that excellence. Whose child do we recommend to be in that group that doesn't make it? mine? yours?