Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Transferring “successful models” within and/outside a system


More than a few years ago, at the height of the development of the so-called “Asian Tigers” (Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan), their models of development were the envy of the developing world and evidence held up by the World Bank and others of like ilk of the success of neoliberal policies. A number of commentators in some developing countries wondered aloud why their countries could not or would not imitate these countries’ strategies for success. The economic success of these “Asian Tigers” is still a source of wonder among many developing countries.

Today, the education systems of Finland and South Korea, among a few others, have been given kudos for their high performance. Countries in the developed and developing worlds are queuing to get the “formula” so as to replicate the success of these countries’ educational systems.
Locally, Ardenne High school has topped the region in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) in 2013. The Minister of Education is already thinking about applying the “Ardenne model” to other schools. No doubt, the idea is that the other schools which have not performed up to Ardenne’s standard, if they are made privy to “Ardenne’s model” will reap similar success.

Countries, institutions and individuals keen on trying to replicate the success of others need to delve deeply into history. They need to closely examine the history of the country, institution or individual that they want to pattern. But, they also, need to closely examine the history of their country, their institutions and their personal history as a basis for their understanding of the nuances of the success they want to emulate.

There is a saying that our past provides a guide to our future. This statement has become clichéd. But even as it has been used and used again and again, its meaning does not resonate with us. To understand our educational present or any other present, for that matter, we need to be able to know about the past. And to know our educational past, we either will have to rely on oral tradition or we are going to read about it. After all, another cliché is that reading maketh a man [or woman]. The trouble I find with us is that we do not read carefully. Before we read, we must have an idea of what we want to find. Here reading is equated with research. Our policy makers keep on tripping over themselves because either they do not understand what they read or they do not read at all.

The success of the “Asian Tigers” may be attributed to a myriad of factors – economic and social policy being chief, but also to cultural values which diverge sharply, in many respects, from the cultural values of many countries within and outside of Asia.

The success of Finland, for example, in achieving large pockets of excellence from its education system is the well-thought out cohesive education policy which provides education from the cradle to the grave to its citizens. The country also provides all the necessary economic, social and technical support which the system needs to achieve the goals set for it. This success did not come over night. It took decades of careful planning, implementation and monitoring of its education policies to achieve its enviable success.

Locally, to what does Ardenne owe its success? Is it to its strong leadership? Is it to its excellent teachers? Is it to its excellent students? Is it to the culture of the school? Or, does it have to do with the action of the Ministry of Education? A combination of all these factors may be credited with its success.

A number of years ago, Ardenne was like any other average performing high school. Its students were average performers. But, with the help of the strong leadership provided by its principals and vice principals from the foundation of the school, as well as its committed teachers, the school consistently produced students who, on average, performed well. But, it was not the school of choice that it is today.

Just over ten years ago, the Ministry of Education decided to do some social engineering by steadily increasing the numbers of high performing students it sent to the school. Today, Ardenne is one of the premier high schools of choice in the country. So, what is the formula for Ardenne’s academic success? It can be seen as social engineering by the Ministry of Education, highly intelligent students, committed teachers, cultural values based on its religious ethos and leadership that is committed to the values of the organisation.

For this “model” to successfully be transferred, all the secondary schools must possess the same elements starting with highly intelligent students and committed teachers. These two elements, I think, are critical to a school achieving excellence as Ardenne has done. Other schools with less able students but with the other elements can achieve good success. We need to, however, recognise that academic success will vary across schools according to the variation in these elements.

Applying a random formula which has worked for one country, one organisation or one individual to one’s endeavours will not necessarily achieve the same results. It depends on the foundation that has been put in place over time by the country, the organisation or the individual. Having laid the foundation for success, we must continue to build on it.

So, before we start applying “models of success” to any of our endeavours, let us do some reading, some research in order to truly understand the making of that country, that institution, that individual. If we see points of convergence between their histories and ours, we may cautiously proceed with our attempts at replication of those points. If we see more points of divergence than convergence, we probably need to devise our own models which are more suited to our situations than the ones we are trying to replicate.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Bullying in schools – Members of Staff as Perpetrators


 
Much research has been done on bullying in schools. This research has mainly focused on students as perpetrators of bullying against each other. Some research, however, has also been done on bullying in organisations. Definitions of bullying focus on the actions and intent of the bully or bullies which are always negative. Definitions also focus on the repetitive nature of the negative actions perpetrated by the bully or bullies on their victims. The definitions of bullying also emphasise that bullying can be direct such as physical assault on the victims but it can also be indirect such as the spread of gossip.

Bullying is a form of intimidation of others by those who possess various types of “power”. This could be power in the form of physical strength; it may be power in the form of the possession of resources whether money, desirable group affiliations or any other desired resource. Acts of bullying are perpetrated for a number of reasons, some incomprehensible. But, oftentimes, the bully or bullies basically want to establish and or maintain their power position in the eyes of the bullied.

While much attention in the research has been focused on students bullying each other, I have not found any that specifically deals with the bullying of staff by other staff members in schools. Probably research exists on this issue and I leave those interested to go seek out the research. I am writing from my observation of this phenomenon in a number of schools.

Within the school, there is continuing interaction between and among staff occupying different roles in the school: interactions between and among principal and all levels of staff; interactions between and among members of faculty; interactions between and among members of faculty and administrative and ancillary staff. This interaction is vertical, horizontal and lateral and going in all directions.

It is fair to assume that if these interactions are cordial the morale of staff will be high. Therefore, staff will not mind going beyond the call of duty, if necessary. But if members of staff perceive that they are being victimised their morale will be negatively impacted which, in turn, may impact their commitment to the organisation. And this may, in turn, negatively impact the performance of the staff which may also negatively impact the performance of the organisation as a whole.

Anecdotal evidence of this bullying among staff in schools takes several forms. First, imagine a principal who forbids faculty from expressing opinions in staff meetings and expects them to listen and to do what they are told. This is an example of undemocratic leadership which escapes into bullying when the principal decides to redeploy members of faculty who defy him/her to teach in areas outside their competence. Or, the principal who consciously decides to overlook eminently qualified and responsible persons for promotion to senior positions as punishment for some perceived act of defiance that they had committed in the organisation. Or, the principal who has an aversion to the secretary which she has inherited and takes every opportunity to publicly vilify her.

Second, some members of faculty are also guilty of bullying. Oftentimes, these bullies are seemingly extroverts. They are loud and overbearing in their attitudes. They like to be in control. They want or have positions of leadership in the organisation. Those who have positions of leadership in the organisation take every opportunity to highlight to the public superficial weaknesses of those they lead. Others who do not yet lead but aspire to positions of leadership resort to gossip to malign the character of those they see as their main rivals. And, sometimes, both tactics - publicly humiliating others and gossiping  - are used by both groups, those who hold positions of leadership and those who aspire to positions of leadership to get their way.

These negative actions, taken by members of staff in schools against each other are examples of bullying – actions repeatedly taken to intimidate others in order to ensure that others are subject to their will so that they (bullies) can maintain or establish their position of unrivalled power in the organisation. These acts of bullying, among others, that some members of staff of schools resort to put pressure on the victims. This results in some members of staff being “forced” out of the organisation while others remain, too stressed by the bullying to be effective. Of course, not all victims remain passive. Some fight back. And this leaves the organisation in a constant state of war.

 

Friday, 18 October 2013

AN ERA OF CHANGE IN THE PUBLIC SERVICE?


It is no secret that many of the leaders/managers of schools and other public sector agencies acceded to their positions either because of their years of service to the school/organisation or because of other factors that have nothing to do with their prowess at leadership/management/teaching. Like many other persons occupying top positions in the public service, they see their accession to senior positions as their just reward for their long service to the organisation. According to one such leader, having now reached the top of his organisation, it was now his time to relax. The idea that managers should actively lead the organisation towards achieving its goals was foreign to him. But then again, he was "leading" a public sector organisation in the Caribbean. So, what goals are we talking about? This person was aghast when I suggested that being at the top of the organisation required more than a presence. He was adamant that he had paid his dues so it was his time to sit back and enjoy his "reward".

Now, in this period of our history when governments are putting in place strategies which they hope will lead to the development of a culture of efficiency, effectiveness, economy, transparency, accountability and responsiveness in the public sector, leaders/managers in this sector will need to abandon the idea that their senior position in their organisation is their reward for years of service, that they have no obligation to the organisation except to continue to maintain the status quo. Other members of staff in these public sector organisations also have a limited vision of their roles. They believe that they must fight to be promoted because a promotion brings with it several benefits – increased salaries, increased pension when they retire, status among their colleagues and the power to exact vengeance on those in the organisation whom they perceived to have wronged them in the past.

This is the story of many public sector organisations. And, in these organisations where people have been socialised into a culture of inefficiency, ineffectiveness, waste, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and non-responsiveness to the concerns of the public and, promotion is an end in itself, governments unloading all their “shiny”, new strategies to effect a change in culture may not realise the desired change, especially in the short and medium term. What is needed is a gradual change in the clichéd “values and attitudes” of workers in the public service. But, whoever is the manager/leader of this change needs to proceed with caution and be gentle in delivering whatever medicine he/she sees fit to administer in order to revive these organisations.

 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

TEACHING MATHEMATICS


 
A teacher of Mathematics once told me that if I could add, subtract, divide and multiply, I could master Mathematics because these skills were the foundation of Mathematics. Well, I can add, subtract, divide and multiply, quite well, as a matter of fact. But I wouldn’t say I mastered Mathematics.

My memories of Math classes are not great, but they do not leave me depressed. One of my Math classes in third form stands out in my memory to this day. It is the only one that holds a position of prominence in my mind. The teacher was quite pleasant. I remember her sitting at her desk for most of the class, waiting for us to bring our work to her for correction after she had “taught” us the fundamentals of whatever topic was introduced. (Sitting is not a bad thing to do. I like the idea of having a chair at the ready in my classroom so I can rest my weary legs, if I choose to).

So, back to my third form Math class. I can still see a “stick man”, standing at the top of an incline. Our job as students was to say something about the man’s position at the top of the incline in relation to a point at the bottom of the incline, I can’t remember what. But, calculations were involved. The ‘fundamentals’ that the teacher presented to us went something like this: “Today we are going to be doing... “ [I cannot remember what we were supposed to be doing]. If we want to... we ...” [She must have presented a formula or some other instruction on the board]. She then wrote a ‘problem’ on the board which, following some steps, she “solved” . We watched as she provided the solution. After we had watched her at work on the problem, the teacher put a problem on the board and told us to solve it following her example.

I can still remember looking closely at the problem and not discerning where to start to make sense of it. It seemed to have been a foreign language which was yet unknown to me. So, I raised my arm and waited politely to be acknowledged. When I was finally acknowledged, I told the teacher that I did not understand the problem on the board. Her response, “What don’t you understand?” I did not understand anything but I couldn’t find a way to articulate that without offending her. I repeated my statement that I did not understand the problem on the board. She was pleasantly dismissive. She glossed over my not understanding - probably telling us that we needed to pay more attention or something to that effect. Then she turned back to the class and asked if everybody understood what they had to do and everybody, except me, replied in the affirmative. Having been assured that her teaching was as clear as crystal to everyone, she took her seat and studied her textbook while she waited for us to solve the problem and take it to her for her perusal. Some students eagerly set to the task, (these were the “bright” ones); some students conversed in small groups and some doodled. I buried myself in a novel that I had brought for occasions such as those – occasions when I was not gainfully employed in the classroom.

Mathematics does not have to as abstract as teachers tend to make it, at least that is my view. I believe that teachers of Math need to make the subject accessible to students. One way of doing that is to start from the beginning. What do I mean by starting from the beginning? The teacher is introducing his/her class to algebra for the first time, for example. It would be nice if the teacher would carefully explain to the students the concept of algebra. What is it? How is it applied? Why do we need to use it? Translate it into the language that the students speak. Using Mathematical language will not help. Relate the topic to real life scenarios so that the students can get excited about it and feel invested in learning it.

Some students have naturally logical brains, I don’t know if this is a scientific fact. They need no explanation except, “Today, we are going to do algebra. A+B=C. A, B and C can stand for any number. If A is 1, B is 2 then C is 3. And he/she presents more examples progressively more difficult. The students are then given some problems to solve.

The students whose brains are wired differently from the math geniuses prefer to, initially, have the teacher use many words (in non-mathematical language) to explain the mathematical concepts. When they understand these concepts, they will respond to them. Therefore, teachers of Math anticipate your students’ unanswered questions: How is this relevant to me, the student? Under what circumstances will this be useful? What are the real life implications of my learning these things? It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Probably. But, oftentimes, one can’t find enough words to make sense of the picture. 

Math teachers, if they want their students to learn mathematical concepts, to pass examinations, to enjoy Math, must take Math out of the realm of the exotic and esoteric. They must apply the concepts to real life situations. They must show how it is useful in the real world, beyond simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They must be willing to address the concerns of the “slow” students who cannot immediately “wrap their heads” around the subject. Students are going to ask why. They want reasons. Math teachers must be prepared to give those reasons. When students understand why they are doing Math and its relevance in daily life, they can then use the basic skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions, decimals and whole numbers that they would have learnt by at least the end of primary school, to master the other elements of Mathematics. However, before teachers of Math can inspire their students to want to learn the subject, they must, first, have a deep understanding of the subject themselves and the ability to communicate what they know.  

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Performance in action: the teacher as guide


Performance as it relates to tasks in an organizational setting may be defined as effort exerted by workers in the organisation to achieve particular goals set by the organisation. Performance is something that the government of Jamaica wants to maximize. If you visit the website of the Cabinet Office, for example, you will see strategies outlined in documents such as Public Sector Transformation, Public Sector Modernisation as well as Performance Management and Evaluation programmes. The strategies outlined in these documents signal the government’s aim to raise the level of performance in the public sector.

 Among organisations targeted are schools and the government is urging them to improve their performance citing low returns on its investment in education as the reason for its concern with school improvement. And, with the government creating the National Education Inspectorate (NEI), it is indicative of its expectations of the education system. The NEI has a mandate to review the performance of schools and make recommendations, where necessary, for their improvement. This is a clear attempt at boosting the organisational performance of schools. According to Kim (2004), a scholar of Public Administration

“[t]he concept of organizational performance [as it relates to government agencies] refers to whether the agency does well in discharging the administrative and operational functions pursuant to the mission and  whether the agency actually produces the actions and outputs pursuant to the mission or the institutional mandate (pp. 250-251)

This definition points to a results orientation, effectiveness i.e. the aim of performance in the organisation. There are several levels of performance pointed to here. First, there is performance of the administrative/management team. In the context of the school, this would refer to performance of principal and her/his administrative staff including senior teachers. Second, there is performance of the faculty and other staff who are tasked with carrying out the teaching and other support functions, the “operational functions” according to Kim. But these ‘performances’ should be based on the mission of the organisation.

 Many schools now have mission statements that set out the intention of the schools with regard to their stakeholders. Sometimes the focus is solely on the students. At other times, the focus of the mission statement is on the students and the wider community. Kim’s definition of organisational performance, which is similar in many respects to other definitions of organisational performance, is saying that, for the goals of, in this case, schools to be realised, there must be demonstrable, measurable performance by management and staff. And, this performance should be geared towards creating some kind of improvement in students [and in the wider community].

 Schools, adopting mission statement, may be doing so because they feel compelled to do so by government directives, not necessarily because they are committed to the ideals that their mission statements encapsulate. I believe that if school management patterns their strategic plans (and I am assuming that they do have strategic plans) to reflect their mission statements, which are really the broad goal to be achieved by the schools, they will see tangible results in the performance of their schools. 
 
If teachers really feel invested in their students, they need not feel constrained by the curriculum or management practices lead the process of change, at least in their classrooms. They can contribute to the improvement of the performance of their students, and by extension the organisation. 

I will use one example that a colleague shared with me to illustrate how teachers can make a marked difference in the classroom and the school community. This teacher, I will refer to as Ms Brown. She worked at a low performing school as ranked by the NEI. Before entering the classroom, she was trained as a teacher of English. She subsequently completed a first degree in Management and a Masters degree in Human Resource Management (HRM). She requested and was assigned courses in business along with English, which was the primary subject she taught. Ms Brown realised that her students of English were not performing up to the required standard. As a result, she decided to employ Human Resource Management techniques in her classroom. This is what she had to say about her ‘experiment’.

From my experience, the application of HRM techniques does in fact effect improvements in the target group. During 2005-2010, I decided to use these techniques in my grade 7 form class. We, as form teachers, were expected to work with these students from grade 7 to grade 11 i.e. the students’ tenure at the school. I established communication channels, utilized conflict management techniques, created work teams, informal but private appraisal and evaluation and most importantly motivational sessions to build self esteem and to encourage the optimization of the students’ potential. The students were taught to respect God, persons in authority, their peers and themselves.  After evaluating aspects of the program I realized that I had to assist the students in setting personal targets instead of having a set of targets for the entire class.  At the end of year three, there was marked improvement in the students’ academic performance, attitude, discipline, deportment and punctuality to school. This change was noticeable across the school community and was commented on. I was awarded the distinction of being named Teacher of the Year in 2007. At the end of five years two students from the form achieved distinctions in all eight CSEC subjects, a feat that the school had never achieved in its recent history. In addition to being their form teacher, I was their teacher of English. My class achieved 86% passes, that is, students gaining grades 1, and 11, while only four students failed the examination out of a cohort of forty students.  They surpassed the school’s average and the national average in the subject.

From this informal Action Research I discovered that real change can be made in organizations if appropriate techniques are introduced to effect the desired changes.

 
It would seem, then, that if teachers are innovative and are willing to draw on all the resources that they possess, they can contribute to the performance of their organisation, in spite of management. What seems to be lacking in many schools deemed to be low performing or failing is committed, visionary leadership and staff who believe that change is possible. Committed, innovative performance by teachers can lead to committed performance from students which, in turn, can lead to improved performance in the organisation.  
People are one of the resources in the organisation and probably the most important. It is through the actions of people who work in the organisation that the organisation’s mission is accomplished. So, when we examine and measure the performance of schools we have to examine and measure the performance of the people who work in the school. And, in many cases, we also need to examine and measure the performance of the other stakeholders – the Ministry of Education, members of the community in which schools are sited and parents – to get a “true” understanding of the schools' performance. All of these stakeholders exert some effort that will lead to the positive or negative performance of the school.

Kim, S. (2005). Individual-level factors and organizational performance in government organizations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 15, 245–61 retrieved from http://ebiz.bm.nsysu.edu.tw/2010/ivy0830/1121%20Sangmook%20Kim%202005.pdf

Monday, 14 October 2013

Honesty is the best policy, is that so?


The word honesty denotes truthfulness, integrity – positive, admirable values. Should this value always be a guiding principle in our lives? A student, several years ago, in responding to the essay topic: Honesty is the best policy, opined that honesty is not always the best policy. She illustrated her answer with the example of examinations. According to her, one will find herself/himself in situations when one has to cheat. If passing an examination well meant that one would get into the best schools, and getting into the best schools would determine one’s successful future, then it would be all right to cheat. She did not examine the consequences that one would likely face if caught. The potential benefit of cheating, to her, far exceeded the costs.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a prominent high school that has been going through a rebuilding phase was in the news, not for the improvements it had made within the environment of the school, not for the successes it had enjoyed over the last few years, but for its role in encouraging students to cheat on the School Based Assessment (SBA) component of one of its Advanced level examinations. Of course, a teacher, not the school has been implicated in this dishonest practice. But, by virtue of the fact that he was attached to the school, the school’s reputation was impugned. Also, the students who sat that particular examination had their grades in that subject cancelled which, no doubt, may have set back some of them in starting studies for the careers that they have chosen for themselves. The teacher, well, his career in teaching is certainly ruined, all unforeseen consequences.

What would have caused this teacher to encourage his students to plagiarise others' work? One answer lies in the pressure to perform. In the past, the school was the premier high school in the country. As a result of what could be deemed poor management, it lost its reputation and status as a school of choice. Over the last five years or so, the school has been in a rebuilding phase under new management and it has achieved remarkable success in the discipline of its students and improved academic performance. This improvement was not achieved by accident. It got its impetus from a deliberately formulated strategic plan aimed at reviving the school to its former glory.

To this end, one strategy employed is target setting as a way of achieving accountability. Teachers are given clear guidelines as to what is expected of them as regards performance. One measure of their performance is students’ performance in tests – monthly tests, end of term tests and end of year tests, all internal tests. Great emphasis is also placed on students’ performance in external examinations, Mathematics and English Language holding key importance. Students’ performance in these subjects seem to be a benchmark against which the government measures schools’ performance and, by extension, the country’s performance in external examinations. Students passing five or more subjects in the external examination including Mathematics and English are deemed to have adequately met the academic standards set for them.

At this school, the students’ performance is expected to improve incrementally over the internal tests. If their performance does not improve, the teacher has to give an account then devise remedial efforts to have the students who did not meet the required standard improve their performance. With improved performance, teachers are incentivized in a number of ways.

I agree with the school’s decision to hold teachers to account. This should prevent them from just going through the motion and demand more from themselves than some normally do. However, this initiative could be a source of added stress for teachers, especially those coming from a culture where teachers go to classes, teach and the burden of learning is placed on the student. If some students learn, that’s good. If some don’t learn, that’s their business. After all, we can’t cut their heads open and put knowledge in them. This cycle keeps repeating itself.

The environment that has been created by the new management of this school is one that requires that all stakeholders in the school reorient themselves from the traditional mindset of business as usual to one that is based on action, one that demands measurable performance. Teachers seem to be given most of the necessary resources needed to improve their teaching. And they are told what is expected of them – continuous improvement. Teachers, like everyone else, like to be lauded. No one likes a bad review, no matter how gently it is given. In the case of this prominent high school, it would seem that this teacher decided to take a short cut in achieving the targets that the school has set for him, either because he was stressed by the demands or too lazy to put in the effort necessary to reap legitimate success.

And, what of the students? These students by virtue of their age knew right from wrong. They are intelligent students, having been successful in the first phase of the external examinations. They were doing other subjects that required that they followed a particular procedure to complete work for their external examinations. It would seem that none of them saw fit to question the decisions made by their teacher. Obviously, they argued, like my former student above seemed to have done, that the end justified the means. However, there are consequences to every action. But, in this case, they did not factor in the consequences.
This situation with this school has forced me to question the legitimacy of results achieved by other schools, not only here in Jamaica, but in every country in which the examination is the major method used to test the competence of students to exit schools and move on into the world of colleges and universities and work. To what extent do those who teach and learn take the adage, honesty is the best policy seriously? And to what extent are quality control agencies set up by government able to monitor the way schools operate? The answer to these questions will raise serious issues which will be a commentary on education systems wherever they are located.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Educational Performance in context: the experience of one developing country


 
In Jamaica, the issue of performance of students across the system up to grade eleven is cause for concern. A number of tests administered at various points at the primary and secondary levels are used as one of the measures of the performance of schools in the education system.

 Many students who enter primary school are found to be unprepared for the primary school curriculum as a result of their performance on the Grade One Individual Learning Profile. According to the Jamaica Education Statistics 2012/2013, this assessment tool “is used to measure the level of students' academic progress and their social readiness for primary school”. The students are assessed in reading, number concepts, oral language, writing and drawing. Their social readiness is assessed by observing their interactions in the classroom. However, according to the Minister of Education, The Honourable Reverend Ronald G. Thwaites (2013) in his presentation , A Call to Action,  in the Sectoral debate in Parliament “more than thirty percent of those who move from Early Childhood Institutions to Grade one, cannot satisfy the Grade One Individual Learning Profile” (http://www.moe.gov.jm/sites/default/files/EFA%20EDITED%20HME%20SectoralPresentation%202013_i1_20130515.pdf)

 
In 2012, this thirty percent included students from preparatory schools. What is of note, however, is that sixty-five percent of students from preparatory schools were deemed ready for the primary school curriculum according to the Jamaica Education Statistics 2012/13 (http://www.moe.gov.jm/sites/default/files/Education%20Statistics%202012-13.pdf, p. 139). Therefore, the extent of the poor performance of students outside the preparatory school system, who continue to be in the majority, is quite stark.

In Grade four students sit the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT) which was introduced in 1998. Children at risk of being illiterate at grade six are identified and interventions put in place to improve their literacy levels, at least that is the intention. Of the students from government schools who sat the examination in 2012, approximately seventy two percent attained ‘Mastery’, twenty percent, ‘Almost Mastery’ and eight percent ‘Non-Mastery’. Fifty-six percent of those who achieved ‘Mastery’ were females. Compare these figures to those of the preparatory schools where ninety-four percent of students achieved ‘Mastery’ with the performance of boys and girls being similar.

At Grade six, children sit the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), the exit examination for primary school students, the examination which determines their placement to high schools. Students are assessed in Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Language Arts and Composition. In 2012, the national average for Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and Language Arts combined was just over sixty-two percent while the average for Composition was nine out of ten for both boys and girls. Girls outperformed boys in the other subjects. Again, the results were unsatisfactory because almost forty percent of those children placed in high school that year were performing below the grade 7 standard.

 The Grade Nine Achievement Test (GNAT) is sat by students who were not placed in high schools. Instead, they were placed in All-Age and Primary and Junior high schools. If they are successful in the examination, they are placed in high schools. It is interesting to note that boys outnumber girls in these schools almost 2:1. These students are tested in Mathematics and Language Arts. The national average for Mathematics during the review period was forty-five percent and for Language Arts, fifty-one percent.

 After five years in high school, students are expected to sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations. Only fifty percent of students in grade 11 sit five or more subjects; in 2012, fifty-two percent of students who sat the CSEC examinations passed English and thirty-eight percent passed Mathematics. But not all students eligible to sit the examination were allowed to do so. Thus, if those who were supposed to have sat the examination by virtue of the fact that they were in grade 11 were added to the number of those who actually sat the examination, only thirty-eight percent of the entire cohort passed English while only twenty percent passed Mathematics. And approximately fifty percent of grade 11 students leave school with only a school leaving certificate and no marketable skills. Seventy-five percent of this number cannot be admitted to the government’s training institutes of the national training agency, Human Employment and Resource Trust (HEART) because they are performing below the grade 9 level in literacy and numeracy (Thwaites, 2013)

 The statistics have painted quite a dismal picture of the performance of the Jamaica Education system. The Ministry of Education seems to have located what it believes to be the causes of the problem of poor performance in the education system. The Minister in his presentation to the Sectoral debate in Parliament outlined what he believed to be the causes of the problem of low performance in the system: poor parenting, inadequate diagnosis of learning difficulties, the shift system in some schools, poverty/poor nutrition, unemployment and elements from popular culture. Therefore, the Ministry’s solution is to provide schools with “a healthy family life curriculum”, revamping Early Childhood, Primary and Special Education, provision of textbooks to students, putting in place a behavioural management programme, reintroduction of civics education in schools, including a skills component at all levels of the education system and introducing new programmes aimed at those who left the education system with low levels of literacy and numeracy, to prepare them for the world of work and further educational opportunities.
These factors identified to be causes of the poor performance in schools need urgent solution, a fact that the government has recognised by identifying possible solutions. However, I want to posit that there must be other latent factors or even apparent ones that have not yet been discerned that impact performance in schools because many Jamaicans who have done well in the education system have come from environments rife with the identified causal elements, yet they achieved much from the system.  

The solutions identified by the MOE are useful initiatives. But, if fundamental change in the performance of the system is to be realised a strategy needs to be devised based on empirical evidence which is gleaned from the Jamaica education system. After we understand our system, our problems, we will be in a much better position than we are now in to borrow ideas on education from other societies to supplement ours, with the aim of improving our education system.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Efficiency, Effectiveness and Economy in the Education system: Impact on Performance


 
Leaders of governments around the world have the issue of performance at the top of their political agendas, at least as part of their rhetoric. In order to achieve this performance, they have charged public sector agencies with the responsibility of carrying out their duties with “efficiency, effectiveness and economy”, borrowing from the literature on Public Management. Now these three words may only be ‘buzz' words in many, if not most, systems in the developing countries. However, I think if these concepts are applied in the contexts in which we work to the tasks to which we are assigned, much can be achieved.

Simply put, the words refer to the expectations in terms of performance that governments envision their systems to achieve. I have interpreted these words as used in the literature on Public Administration/Public Management in the following way. First, “efficiency” means that in this period of economic hardship public bodies should try to achieve more output from fewer inputs. Second, “effectiveness” means the achievement of results based on targets set. Third, “economy” suggests the minimisation of waste in the system.

For those of us who work in any area of government in the developing world and, probably in the developed world as well, we can identify copious examples of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and waste in the system. But, don’t let us start blaming a faceless ‘government’ for this state of affairs. Let’s start blaming ourselves because, as workers in government, we are the face of government. So, if there are inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and waste in the education sector, the sector of government with which I am concerned at this time, then, all of us as workers in this sector must take some of the blame.

First, let’s examine the issue of efficiency. School leaders complain about lack of resources or inadequate amounts of resources. They are right. They do not, on the face of it, get nearly enough resources to adequately address all the needs of their institutions. However, this is where their creativity and innovation will set them apart from the “system maintainers”, those leaders/managers who lead/manage according some predetermined script of what ought to be, not according to what is possible within the constraints in which they are working.  The infrastructure is inadequate, the subvention is inadequate; there is not enough furniture for students and teachers among a host of ‘problems’. But, there is a saying that if life gives you a lemon you should make lemonade. How can we turn the negative situations with regard to lack of resources with which we are faced in schools into positives? The answer to this question will demonstrate the innovation and creativity of school leaders and teachers – qualities that are highly sought after in leaders today.

Second, school leaders are expected to be effective managers. They are expected to produce results – students who are literate and numerate; students who pass exams; students who are good citizens, not only of their society but of the world. In addition, they are expected to balance their budgets, improve the school plant, to possess political skills so they can successfully liaise with internal and external constituents. While it may not be said out loud in some education systems, the key measure of the schools’ performance is its students’ performance in external examinations.

 In Jamaica, for example, does the Ministry of education set realistic goals as regards the performance of students that are achievable within the constraints with which it will be faced from time to time? Do school leaders set realistic, achievable goals for their schools? Do teachers set any goals with regard to the educational outcomes of their students? Do students set any goals with regard to their education? Of course, setting goals is not enough, having a plan to achieve those goals is very important. The effectiveness of individuals within a system cannot be measured unless there are targets against which measurement can take place. The achievement or non-achievement of set goals determines the extent to which individuals within the school are effective, and by extension, the extent to which the effectiveness of the school can be measured.

Third, economy or the minimisation of waste is important. I’ll just use one example to illustrate this point. In many high schools, there are technical departments or Industrial Arts departments. Within these departments teachers and students possess various skills such as carpentry, metal work and so on. The furniture in the school is subject to wear and tear from time to time. Instead of throwing them out, stacking them away to be forgotten or waiting years for the Ministry of Education to find the funds to have them repaired, I think the skills within the institution could be utilised to repair and/or re-purpose the broken furniture.

The phrase, “encouragement sweetens labour” is clichéd, but true. The leadership of schools could recognise the industry of these students and teachers who provide their skills to the service of the school with some kind of incentive which will encourage them to continue to to give of their service. There are many other examples within schools where the leadership can take the initiative to minimise waste. They only need to open their eyes and their imagination and anything is possible.

To wait on the government to fully uphold its side of the bargain where the provision of education in poor societies is concerned is to wait indefinitely.Therefore, those in leadership positions in schools must be innovative and decisive. If they incorporate the ideals of efficiency, effectiveness and economy in their management strategy they will realise that management is hard work, but rewarding at the same time.

 

 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Every child can learn, that's the belief

The Caribbean Heads of Government in 1997 unveiled a profile of the ideal Caribbean person that they had devised. This ideal Caribbean person will be created as a result of his/her ability to learn. She/he must learn to live together, learn to be, learn to do and learn to learn (http://cxc.org/?q=media-centre/cxcs_blog). Dr. Didacus Jules (2010), Registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) in his post, Rethinking Education in the Caribbean on the CXC blog shared this insight with us while he pondered the way forward for education in the Caribbean. This is a real concern since, generally, the output from the education systems in the region is considered to be unsatisfactory.

I will be commenting on the issue of learning here. What is learning and how do we learn? Learning involves the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes for a purpose. It is an ongoing process. And, how do we learn? Educationists tell us that we have different learning styles - visual, kinesthetic and auditory. This is the simple explanation. So, some of us are visual learners. Some of us learn by responding to visual stimuli. Others are kinesthetic learners. They learn best by touching, literally and metaphorically speaking, the information. Others are auditory learners. They learn best by listening to information. See Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_styles#Learning_styles_in_the_classroom that may provide you with direction to reputable academic research on the subject).

If the Caribbean Heads of Government's vision of the ideal Caribbean person is to be realised, every teacher has a critical role to play in helping his/her student understand the virtue of learning as well as the "how" of learning. I have discovered from my years of teaching that before students can acquire any of the knowledge, attitudes and skills that the curricula prescribe I have to teach them how to learn. Teaching students to learn is a continuous, time consuming but rewarding process. I have to engage them in discussions where I try to get them to understand the purpose of learning particular topics. Oftentimes, they will disagree with my reasoning but at least they get the chance to think about the issue. Then, after they have thought about the issue, I have to provide them with the "how" of learning these things.

We who teach must realise that students come to the classroom with their own agendas. I have learnt from a number of students that they only attend school because their parents or bosses have insisted that they do so and not because they want to. During my long career in teaching I have learnt that many children and adults are not so different in their attitude to schooling. Therefore, I have learnt to use whatever means necessary to encourage them to give learning a chance and I have had some success in this endeavour.

I like the ideal of the Caribbean person that's been drawn up by the leadership of the Caribbean. It recognises the importance of learning directed towards achieving a particular goal. In whatever community we find ourselves, we must, indeed, learn to live together, learn to be, learn to do and, most importantly, I think, learn to learn. To do all this learning will require particular skills sets that every teacher has a role in helping the learner develop. We must realise that every child can, indeed, learn; every person can, indeed, learn. However, let us not lose sight of the fact that some will learn much more than others.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Is Educational Research Really Useful?


What is educational research?

First, every type of research has the potential to shed light on issues in society. But, today, we are focusing on educational research. 

I have chosen to define educational research as an investigation or exploration into issues of concern in education in specific societies with a view to bringing about some kind of change in the education systems of these specific societies to benefit those who take advantage of or will take advantage of education in these specific societies. The results of this investigation or exploration may be used for cross-cultural comparisons. 

However, the overarching goal of educational research, as I see it, is to devise a system of education that reflects the ideals and realities of those to whom this education is dispensed. "The powers that be" who devise these systems hope that the recipients of the education that they have designed will exhibit certain kinds of behaviours that are advantageous to themselves and to society as a whole, considering the expectations that many societies have of education.

We see issues in education being explored by researchers such as educational attainment, bullying, social class and impact on learning, gender in education and so on. These are issues worthy of exploration in every context. But if these issues are explored in the British society, the American society or societies in Europe or Asia or Africa, should people in the Caribbean, for example, uncritically accept the findings of these researchers and use them to create educational policies for their societies? I think not.
All societies are not the same, and will not become the same no matter what globalisation "experts" believe. Cultures will borrow material things from each other – food, clothing, music, architectural designs and technology – for example. However, ideas will take much longer to be diffused than expected. And ideas are at the core of culture, ideas about what is good and right and acceptable in that society.
What is society?
In 1987, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher challenged the intellectuals and the public at large to think seriously about the notion of society. In an interview with Woman’s Own, a British magazine, in responding to a question, she said that [people] “are casting their problems on society [and asked] who is society?” She answered her question by asserting that “[t]here is no such thing! There are individual men and women and ... there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first”.  

The headlines in the news media shouted that the Prime Minister said there was no such thing as society, which she did say. However, in clarifying her statement in 1988, she made the point that when there is need for action [in society] we tend to call on society to take action. We tend to lose sight of the fact that we as individuals are society. Society, therefore,  is more than a concept. 

Society is loosely, as I learnt in school a very long time ago, a group of people who occupy a particular geographical space and share a culture. Today, the idea of society has been extended beyond the geographical. However, my focus here is on the geographical. I believe that we need to realise that it is our actions that create the successes that we enjoy in our geographical spaces and the failures that we decry in these spaces. Also, it is our actions that will create future successes and failures.
Implication for Education
We, in our geographical spaces, need to focus our attention on actions that will improve our output from our education systems. It is our duty to isolate the specific, troublesome issues relating to education in our spaces, use whatever methodologies we have at our disposal to delve deeply into these issues, identify possible solutions and use our research findings as blueprints to solve our problems. This kind of educational research is, indeed, useful, the kind that promises solutions to problems in the education systems of specific societies based on an investigation or exploration of the issues of concern to these specific societies, and with participants who inhabit the educational spaces in these specific societies. 

Borrowing policy ideas from elsewhere is not necessarily a bad thing, unless we who do the borrowing refuse to adapt the ideas that we borrow to fit the realities of our education systems. We need to understand that every society has differences that run the gamut of social life so we should not assume that once some research is done in "foreign" contexts on issues in which we have an interest, it is all good and well for us to start to reconstruct our education systems with these findings as our guide.

What does it mean to be educated?


Everybody has a different view of what it means to be educated. "The man or (woman) in the street has his/her view of what it means to be educated. Those who know that they are educated i.e. by virtue of them having degrees and other certification have their view of what it means to be educated.

But is this state, being educated, universally accepted as being based on the same criteria?  Does it mean that the educated person is able to read? If so, what level of reading constitutes being educated? Does it mean speaking the standard or formal language of our country? Does it mean having a knowledge of languages? Does it involve an ability to listen and understand what is heard? Does it mean being able to communicate clearly through writing? Does it mean the possession of skills? Does it mean the ability to clearly communicate ideas? Is to be educated linked to intelligence? Is it linked to our possession of knowledge/s? And if so, what knowledge/s? Are some "knowledges" more favoured than others?

Reading competence, writing competence, listening competence and speaking competence, I think, are requisite skills that we need to possess to be considered educated. But being educated also involves competence in numeracy as well. And all these competencies should manifest themselves in our ability to clearly communicate, to continue to learn and be able to apply our learning (the 'knowledges' to which we are exposed) to solve problems that we face in our day to day existence.

To be educated means not only that schooling has positively impacted us, it means also that our experiences outside of school have provided us with lessons that we have learnt. To be educated means that we can recognise prejudices but not be drawn into perpetuating them. To be educated means that we recognise when personal ideologies are being sold to us as universal wisdom, visions of society that we must accept. To be educated means that we have developed a sense of self based on values that, based on the paths we have chosen to take in life, provide guidance to us. To be educated means that we have our own convictions but we are willing to listen to the convictions of others, without being judgemental. To be educated means that we can read between the lines, we can critically analyse all the "knowledges" that are being tossed at us and still retain our sense of self. This is my vision of what it means to be educated. However, society (government and the intellectual elite) may be selling a view of the educated man (woman) that may be slightly different from my view, or a whole lot different.

Are you educated?

What exactly is education?


What is education?
Sociologists, among other scholars, have tried to tell us much about education. From their writings, it may be gleaned that education, as a concept, is multifaceted.

First, education is an intellectual debate. Does it prepare us for our roles in society?  Does education support other social systems like the economy, the family and government? Does it provide us with skills and knowledge? Does it help us to develop our latent talents, whatever these may be? Is it liberating? Does it encourage critical thinking and initiative? Does it create equality or does it create inequality? Is it exploitative? These are questions with which scholars of education in society have been grappling. Some have settled on what education is, some have settled on what education ought to be, some have settled on what it does, while others are still searching for its essence.

Second, education seems to be an object, a thing to be possessed, and if we possess it we have acquired a ‘good’. We have acquired something that is advantageous to us - society.
Third, education seems to be a process, a process through which we acquire knowledge and skills and realise our potential. But it could also be a process through which we are systematically moulded into beings envisioned by those who control society. Either way, education works on us – the end result is that we, as a result of our education, will chart our own course through life in society.

Fourth, education seems to be a strategy. It is a strategy used by those who possess it for various purposes – to get ahead, for control, to attempt to maintain the status quo, to indoctrinate us into accepting ideologies that the proponents believe are more current than existing ones, to empower those less educated than themselves – for contradictory purposes, but for some perceived benefit.

It therefore requires that when we think about the concept of education, we go on a voyage of exploration. We think of the perspectives of the theorists, but we examine ourselves. What does it really mean to be educated in our contexts, the spaces in which we find ourselves?