How do we hold parents responsible for their children?
Can we attract and keep good teachers?
Will we ever achieve discipline in our schools?
How do we get more skilled Bahamians?
These are questions that cut to the heart of the Bahamian education crisis.
We use the word "crisis", because about 10 per cent of our work force is unemployed, and 40 per cent of the jobless are under 25.
This is despite a major influx in foreign investment, a booming housing and construction market, and a healthy tourist industry that most experts agree will generate sustained growth for years, barring an international disaster.
In the recent budget debate, State Finance Minister James Smith projected a major expansion of the job market as massive development projects come on stream. But there is an alarming consensus that our young people lack the skills to benefit from this growth.
It is clear from reports presented at the national education conference three weeks ago that the level of learning in our schools is "unacceptable" – which has serious implications for our survival as a modern state.
Larry Smith – Tough Call
This is not an isolated view. Education Minister Alfred Sears himself admits that our school system is in need of "thorough and dramatic reform". And the Inter American Development Bank has offered a $20 million credit facility to help pay for it.
The recent education conference was aimed at deciding how to achieve this transformation. But in broad terms we already know that the money will be invested to expand pre-school facilities, improve secondary and technical education, and produce more college graduates.
For an idea of what the last point means, in 2004 less than 13 per cent of some 5700 Bahamian high schoolers earned the minimum requirement for college entrance in their final exams – defined as a 'C' average in five subjects. And a government survey showed that only 940 students from the class of 2002 went on to college in the Bahamas or abroad.
By contrast, about two thirds of high school graduates in the United States go on to college (including open enrolments). And the comparable figure for Barbados is 29 per cent.
According to the World Bank, Barbados "maintained quality teaching and impressive learning outcomes. This is a challenge that the majority of English speaking Caribbean countries have yet to overcome."
Most Bahamian students require technical and vocational training to prepare for the job market, but only a fifth of the government's $25 million tertiary education budget goes to the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute, which offers basic instruction in a few programmes to several hundred students.
Experts say early childhood education makes students better learners. So the government wants to provide near-universal pre-school education for three-and four-year-olds over the next several years. Currently, only about half of eligible children attend pre-school.
Some of these facts are taken from the national education conference journal, a compendium of 10 research papers by local experts (including two from high school students Answa Armbrister and Lynette Gibbs). Distribution of this publication was restricted and little information about the conference has emerged over the past three weeks.
There are three general articles in the conference journal. Ed Bethel, vice principal at St John's College, advocated changing the way we assess students in our schools. Keith Dean, a former BTVI lecturer, reported on technical education. And the Coalition for Education Reform proposed 14 strategies to fix the system.
The Coalition – made up of the Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Association, the Hotel Union and the Nassau Tourism and Development Board – identified major challenges for education in the Bahamas. These include a widespread lack of functional literacy and a "severe disconnect" between education policy and the job market.
Its report pointed to three distinct learning gaps. First, overall BGCSE results are "disturbing", with New Providence public schools earning a mean grade of F+ and 43 per cent of students failing math. The BGCSE is a national exam introduced in 1993 that determines "what students know, understand and can do after completing high school."
Second, there is a "profound academic performance gap" between boys and girls. Many more girls than boys actually take the BGCSE and more than twice as many girls receive A and B grades as do boys. And third, "there is a serious lack of graduates prepared to enter college."
The Coalition strategies ranged from restoring order in the classroom by making parents and students accountable, to issuing substantive reports on the state of education, to redesigning assessment tests, enforcing child support, extending school hours, expanding remedial programmes and improving teacher "combat" pay.
"Reforming the public education system can only be accomplished with strong leadership over a long time using strategies that are clearly stated and widely endorsed," the Coalition said. "Somehow the government must depoliticise the education system and allow thoughtful, creative and energetic educators to do their jobs."
Ed Bethel's article criticised the Bahamas' exam-focused system: "Perhaps as a lingering holdover from the pre-independence era, education stakeholders continue to view all examinations as high-stakes summative assessments."
So much emphasis is placed on exam success, he says, that 'teaching to the test" has actually replaced the school curriculum: "Our educational system is not designed to create graduates equipped with usable, marketable skills – it is designed to prepare students to pass exams.
"We judge its success not by the employability of our graduates but rather by their performance on exams," he explained. "When we start valuing skills education then schools will provide it. In other words, the schools will generally design their programmes to meet the criteria by which they are judged."
Bethel calls for something called "authentic learning", by making tests more multi-dimensional. To do so, he says the number and variety of assessments should be expanded with more emphasis on coursework and projects based on real experiences such as web site design and documentary videos.
"How can we expect our students to be functionally literate if we don't teach them to be? If teachers are ultimately going to be judged by how well our students do on BGCSE exams, then that's what they are going to put all their efforts into. Make the assessments reflect workplace needs and then teachers' efforts will be redirected more productively."
Keith Dean, an industry lecturer at Bahamas Baptist College, reviewed the current state of technical and vocational education in the Bahamas, and reported the results of a survey of recent BTVI graduates.
"The level of fit between education and workforce realities is critical to national development," he wrote. "Greater resources should be placed to ensure that national technical training systems are positioned to accommodate changes in the economy."
He pointed out that while most job needs in the Bahamas are technical or vocational, the bulk of our education resources are allocated to academic training that only a minority of students can take advantage of.
"…properly funded technical and vocational education that empowers young people can also help a nation tackle social ills such as crime, school violence, teenage pregnancy and truancy…Advanced technical training benefits greater numbers of citizens than university-based education, helping to improve wealth distribution."
Most of the BTVI graduates who were polled said they enrolled to upgrade their job skills, Mr Dean reported. But they were not satisfied with either the courses or the instructors.
"There is a clear perception that disconnects exist between what is expected by employers and the actual skills possessed by BTVI graduates…the present system appears to have bureaucratic impediments that mitigate against workforce development."
He recommended legislation to promote technical training, as well as the formal incorporation of BTVI as a public-private partnership governed by a reconstituted National Training Council.
The IADB objectives for Bahamian education – contained in its country strategy report (www.iadb.org) call for 70 per cent of eligible children to attend preschool by 2010, and a revised curriculum for technical and vocational education by 2007 to be implemented by 2010.
But will this be enough to fix the problem?
According to Ed Bethel, "I don't think there is a crisis in education. I think there is a social crisis. Upwards of 70 per cent of births are to unwed mothers, many of whom are teenagers. These mothers have little time to raise their children. The kids are raising themselves and each other.
"Students are coming to school without the shared values that allow a teacher to focus on teaching. So much time and energy has to be spent on basic character formation, a task that would be done in the home in the past.
"Lack of parental support for the school and the teacher, overcrowded classrooms, staff shortages – these are the obvious bigger challenges facing the educational system."
What do you think? E-mail your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.
This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, July 27, 2005.
The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: email@example.com