Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Courage to Change Education

Education reform remains one of our most significant challenges today. It tends not to produce stark headlines nor is it ever the topic of sustained debate in any public arena. Yet major reforms are necessary and the Ministry of Education has set about making such changes to create better opportunities for our young people—even if the pace is not as robust as some of us seek. Such changes will bring with them the inevitable discomfort and dislocation. 

We all know we need to improve student performance, certainly in the public sector, and we all know there are a number of key factors involved in reaching this goal: (1) ensuring schools are equipped with adequate resources (2) placing properly qualified teachers in classrooms and giving them the authority to manage (3) getting parents to share in the responsibility for educating their children and working with schools, and (4) placing effective leadership is in place to run schools. A serious weakness in any area will necessarily have a negative effect on student performance. 

We now have good data by which we can assess student performance—through the Cambridge Curriculum exams—and this can be done across schools. The Ministry has this information and can therefore provide comparative assessments of schools. There is no doubt the Ministry is using this information along with an abundance of other data as the basis for some of their recent decisions.

As these decisions become public it is important to focus less on the personalities involved than the rationale for the decision in the first place. Few will disagree that there are some teachers who should not be teaching—they have little interest in students and perform their work in a purely perfunctory manner. In a similar vein, there are some principals who should vacate their offices forthwith since the performance of their students is significantly lower than their counterparts and there have been no signs of improvement. Harsh words, perhaps. But if we can celebrate the successes of good schools, good principals and good teachers we have to be honest and bold enough to remove the incompetents among us. We need no other reason than for the sake of our children and our country.

With an embarrassingly high level of students in private schools, the Ministry needs to act faster to fix the problems in public education and restore the confidence in the system that existed during my years of education during the 1970s. There is no doubt an abundance of caution since while we have the right curriculum we now need to get the personnel right, secure the best available people for the areas most in need of reform.  The unpleasant reality, though, is that we simply do not have the luxury of caution. We need more bold and courageous steps to meet the challenges and deliver a superior education system. Unlike many countries the impediment to fixing our education system is not resources, it is the allocation of those resources.  

The recent actions by the Ministry of Education show they have the courage to make controversial decisions with a view toward making the education system better. For this they should be commended. What we need to see, what they should be encouraged to do, is to expedite the changes they must have already contemplated and decided on so that our students benefit from a better system. When more of our students succeed so too do we.

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