|Fixing the ‘education crisis’|
Guardian Senior Reporter
Published: Aug 13, 2012
After the ushering in of majority rule in 1967, one of the mandates for the new Pindling-led government was to remove barriers that prevented poor, average Bahamians from access to a quality, free high school education.
In 1972 the then government produced a White Paper on education called Focus on the Future, which pledged that the public school system would give everyone an education “ . . .of the right kind and sufficient both in quantity and quality to meet the intellectual, moral, emotional and physical needs of all”.
Some 40 years later the country finds itself in the midst of “an education crisis”.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many students in government schools are being socially promoted from one grade to the next, although they do not have a rudimentary grasp of reading and arithmetic, leaving them ill-prepared for the workforce.
Minister of Education, Science and Technology Jerome Fitzgerald last week said his ministry would strive to ensure that school leavers have at least a 9th grade skill level in reading and math before they are thrust out of the protective cocoon of high school and into the real world.
The statement raises the question: At what grade levels are school leavers reading and writing now?
Even worse, Fitzgerald said that almost half of public school seniors do not qualify for high school diplomas but instead get a leaving certificate that denotes a singular achievement — the ability to attend school regularly for a few years.
Every year around this time the Ministry of Education releases its results for the country’s two national exams for junior and senior high school students. As far back as I can remember the results have been disappointing and have fueled chatter for talk shows, grabbed headlines and generally made ministry of education officials defensive as the population bemoaned the dismal state of public education.
This year’s results for the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education exam (BGCSE), which tests a student’s knowledge of subjects studied during high school, have been no different.
The compilation of test scores produced by the Ministry of Education provides insight into the numeracy and literacy capabilities of today’s students. While it can be argued that there are some who just won’t do well on standardized tests, the BGCSE results are one of the few barometers we can use to measure students’ cognitive capabilities and should not be overlooked as a crucial indicator of academic achievement.
This year’s BGCSE test results show that students sitting the exams received an average letter grade of D in English language and an E+ in mathematics. The average in biology was a D-, physics C-, and chemistry C-.
The data also shows that 1,485 students received a grade of A-C on the math exam while 3,226 students got grades D-U. The data for English scores show that 1,798 students scored A-C while 3,231 students got grades D-U.
However, these results combine public and private school performance. When the two groups are separated the scores for government schools are even worse. The top performing public high schools in New Providence — C.I Gibson, C.R. Walker and C.V. Bethel — averaged a D in the BGCSE exams.
Collectively, New Providence private schools received an average of C- in the tests compared to New Providence public schools, which received an average of D-.
It’s been said the quality of education a person receives cannot transcend the quality of his teachers. So if we are continually seeing less than satisfactory results from the public school system is it safe to say that something is wrong with the quality of instruction given?
Former Education Minister Desmond Bannister received some backlash last week for a few candid statements he made about some of the country’s teachers. He said that the education system lacked Bahamian instructors qualified to teach in “critical” subjects like math, English and the sciences.
He added that while there were many good teachers in the public sector, red tape and unions make it difficult for officials to weed out the few unqualified instructors.
However I spoke with one former Ministry of Education official who went a step further. The former official, who did not want to be named, said the Bahamianization policy introduced after majority rule has harmed the teaching practice.
He said that because of the push to have more Bahamian teachers in the system the doors were thrown wide open to accept local instructors even if they lacked the qualifications to teach in core subject areas.
“We were more concerned with purely having Bahamians [as teachers] as opposed to having qualified Bahamians,” said the former education insider.
The former official added that uncompetitive salaries and a lack of incentive pay attracts subpar teachers when the Ministry of Education outsources labor to fill in gaps Bahamians cannot meet.
“You can only get teachers who are not Bahamian from less than optimal universities from less than optimal countries in our region. The Bahamas is not competitive in salaries,” he said.
His statements are affirmed by a 2007 report on education prepared by the Coalition for Education Reform.
“While there are outstanding teachers in the public school system, there is a public concern that some teachers appear to be inadequately trained, mis-utilized or under motivated,” noted the coalition in its report, “Bahamian Youth: The Untapped Resource Report No. 2”.
That report also cites a reference by historian Michael Craton who spoke of a decline in qualified teaching applicants after 1967.
According to the report, Craton found that “the number of teaching candidates [after majority rule] multiplied six fold in a decade” but “the proportion of entrants with the original requirement of five ‘O’ level passes fell from 90 to less than 10 percent”.
The 2007 document also spoke of alarming trends in student testing in areas like math and English that would deteriorate further if left unchecked.
“One cannot help but conclude that two overwhelming and critical national problems are the scarcity of basic linguistic and mathematical skills and the disengaged male. What we are looking at is a societal failure of immense consequences.
“Not facing this issue merely causes the problem to grow year after year,” noted the report.
In its first report on education, published in 2005, the Coalition presented 14 recommendations to reform the ‘mediocrity’, which had cropped up in the education system. They included creating longer school hours; mandatory summer school for remedial students; end social promotion; and create a new teacher evaluation and compensation plan.
Chamber of Commerce President Winston Rolle’s organization was among seven private sector groups that formed the Coalition for Education Reform. He does not think that government adopted much of the group’s work.
“I don’t think we’ve seen any major parts of it (the group’s recommendations) being implemented,” Rolle said. “We need to realize that for us to make meaningful improvement we need to put aside any differences that we have and we need to come together as a unit and look at what is in the best interest of education, what is in the best interest of the country regardless of whose idea and opinion it is.
“We do have a crisis on our hands and this is not a time for posturing,” Rolle added. “This is a time for action and we need to be more focused on the results, regardless of where it’s coming from and how those results are going to get us to where we need to get to as a country.”
When the Progressive Liberal Party won the May general election it did so on a platform that undoubtedly resonated with thousands of voters. The party said it had the chops to take on the country’s two most pressing social issues: crime and high unemployment.
Undoubtedly education, or a lack thereof, contributes to crime levels and unemployment. The new education minister Jerome Fitzgerald has a mammoth task on his hands.
Fitzgerald has already committed to increasing reading and Math periods for primary school students, increasing the number of government pre-school classes and introducing Career Path Academics into the public school system to give students who do not shine academically some vocational training.
His ministry will also create a standardized national high school diploma, which will be rolled out by June 2016. The recipient of the standardized diploma will have to meet criteria that will ensure that he/she has at least attained a 9th grade education, Fitzgerald has said.
His ministry will also focus on creating a safe environment in public schools through the reintroduction of school policing. The Christie administration also allocated funding in the 2012/2012 budget to expand government’s after school programs for low performing students in grades six, nine and 11 who need help in math and reading.
The electorate will be watching to see what changes are implemented over the next five years to education, how they impact test scores and the overall quality of the public school system.