The first step in developing a country’s human resources is to provide access to education and encouragement/promotion of education.
At first glance, one might conclude that Jamaica has done a pretty decent job on this front, all things considered. From the JAMAL program to the removal of tuition fees up to the secondary level, from GSAT to a renewed focus on early childhood education, the Education Ministry under all administrations seem to have tried their best to educate our people despite our limitations. However, is this an accurate conclusion?
A comment on my previous column stated that one of the solutions needed is literacy for Jamaicans. While I acknowledge the impact that literacy will have on Jamaicans, I believe the greater need is for intellectual engagement and a true assessment of education. Literacy is the key that unlocks the door of education and higher knowledge; but what good is a key if you don’t use it?
I submit that education in Jamaica is not truly geared towards “EDUCATING” the people, but towards “TRAINING” the people. The education system in Jamaica still comes from a colonial bent, where the masses are trained to work for people and to do tests, rather than encouraged to reach their full potential and be empowered to become fruitful citizens. This is not an attack on the teachers, the administrators, the students, or even the Ministry of Education. This is a simple fact borne out by the preponderance of courses such as “Office Procedures”, “Technical Drawing”, “Home Ec” and the unpopularity of the STEM stream of courses. Furthermore, the removal of Civics from all levels of the educational program has created a society that has very little knowledge of how government and civil society operates, how laws are created, how to hold politicians responsible for their actions, and how to participate in the wider society as an engaged and articulate citizen. In addition, the vast majority of teachers are overworked and underpaid, and this affects the students under their purview. Teaching becomes viewed at worst as a place-holder job, or something you do if you can’t find anything else, and at best as a “noble sacrifice” where you do the honorable thing even as you suffer financially and otherwise for your efforts. Thus, we have students trained by stressed teachers, not aware and awoken to their full potential, not knowing what rights they have or what their history is, and leaving school only with skills but not with a true EDUCATION.
What can we do to fix this?
Only a radical and from-the-ground-up approach can work. The first thing is to attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession. This is necessary, because they will be at the front lines of transforming society, and the work will not be trivial nor will be of short duration. The teachers would receive pay commensurate with their importance to society, pay of a level to make a bright and talented individual choose to enter teaching as a first choice rather than choose to go elsewhere or select teaching only because he/she has no other options. This would swell the teachers ranks, and provide many resources for the work ahead. Teachers should get all the resources they need to engage and educate the nation’s children, whether they are in the deep rural primary schools or most elite prep school.
However, this raise of pay would come with raised expectations and increased effort/engagement/oversight of the teachers. Performance and student reviews would qualify both pay raises and continued employment, and employee/teacher reviews plus student performance would qualify school administration evaluations. A system of checks and balances is needed to ensure that a student who attends Mocho Primary has the same quality of education as a student who attends Mona Prep. In addition, the teachers would be trained in the COMPLETE education of the student, not just in teaching a subject and leaving it there. The teacher/student ratio should be constant and manageable.
Beyond this would be the reformation of the entire education system, where education is not restricted to regurgitating facts and knowledge, but is expanded to include learning, application of knowledge to real life, socialization, education about government and society, and a rounded approach to life and its opportunities. Each student would have an equal opportunity to gain understanding and to reach his/her full potential, including socialization. While the external exams remain the same, the WAY we prepare students must go beyond meeting the syllabus requirements.
Too idealistic? It may be, but the alternative is the unsatisfactory status quo. If we keep doing what we have always done, we will get what we have always gotten…over-crowded schools, the haves and the have-nots, fierce demand for limited spaces in the “good” schools, demotivated teachers and principals, and the continued decline of Jamaica as unprepared students become frustrated citizens who see no other way to survive beyond criminality and hustling. The fruits of a complete and holistic investment in primary and secondary education will not be visible for almost a generation, but the seeds MUST be sown if Jamaica is to break out of the current sociological death cycle. (Tertiary education is another topic for another blog). Will there be any administration with the political fortitude and national foresight to make such an investment in its future?