Fixing Our Failing Schools

First Published: 2005-08-03

Last month, a gaggle of experts met in a Cable Beach hotel to talk about fixing our failing education system.

The four-day conference was a prelude to the draw-down of $20 million from the Inter American Development Bank. This money will be used to pay for more pre-schools and the expansion of technical education.

As the IADB says in its lending plan for the Bahamas: "The co-existence of acute skills shortages, notably in trades, and unemployment rates consistently above 7 per cent raise questions about the relevance of education, particularly for males.

"…the delivery and content of vocational education remains outdated. Of particular concern, male underachievement has resulted in about 40 per cent of all boys dropping out of the system prior to graduation."

However, in his speech at the conference, Education Minister Alfred Sears contradicted this statement by proclaiming a 1 per cent drop-out rate in the public school system over the past five years.

Larry Smith – Tough Call

A reader who asked to remain anonymous drew attention to this disparity: "It seems exceedingly low, and without seeing the minister's backup it is difficult to verify. It is difficult to understand this number when one looks at his data on the underachievement of males.

"The minister says that the 2004 BGCSE exams were taken by 13,527 females and 8,741 males, and earlier he stated that males and females enter school in equal numbers. It should be noted that his BGCSE numbers are for both public and private schools.

"This data suggests that there is an 'academic drop-out rate' for both public and private schools of 17.7 per cent – derived from the assumption that if males had the same drop-out rate as females, then the number of males taking the exams would also be 13,527.

"This analysis is faulty because it compares a public school drop-out rate with a theoretical public and private school academic drop-out rate. Nevertheless, it is both alarming and confusing. The drop-out number warrants further comment by the minister of education."

In his speech, Minister Sears raised concerns about Bahamian education priorities. They ranged from whether we should be learning Chinese to how we should arrive at a definition of what a specifically 'Bahamian' education might be.

What he did not ask is how we can better teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. This is a valid question because the 2004 national exam results show that the five subjects with the lowest grades of 26 subjects tested were: English, Maths, Biology, Economics and Bookkeeping.

The average grade earned in maths was an E, and 43 per cent of more than four thousand math exam takers actually failed (defined as earning an F, G or U grade on an eight-point scale).

This startling information is taken from one of the research papers in the education conference journal – called the Untapped Resource. It was produced by the Coalition for education Reform, a group of private sector employers and unions.

"This data substantiates the conclusion that Bahamian education is unacceptable," the report said. "This is reality, and you absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts."

In relation to this, one analyst raised the obvious question: "Are Bahamian teachers capable of teaching math? The minister says there are 3,000 teachers in the public system and with very few exceptions all are trained. But the data suggest they are not trained to teach mathematics."

Improving our English and math skills should be a fundamental task for educators, especially in view of the World Bank's position that the key ingredient in economic development in the 21st century will be the quantity and quality of a people's skills and their interaction with technology.

Here's what the United States has to say on this point: "Math is a critical skill in the information age. We must improve achievement to maintain our economic leadership. While technology advances with lightning speed, stagnant math performance in schools short-changes our students' future and endangers our prosperity. The president has called for increasing the ranks and pay of teachers of math and science."

And our local analyst notes that "If one were trying to set an agenda for the 21st century, it would appear that the first step in that process is to candidly describe the present state of affairs."

However, the Coalition article noted that the last annual report to parliament on the state of education was in 1995, and that report failed to candidly describe the situation.

"The overall mean average in BGCSE 1994 was a D-; but at that time the minister only noted that some students exhibited 'a lack of knowledge of the relevant subject matter' and more research was needed to develop a scheme to assist them. Minister Sears made an equally deficient appraisal of our education system in his recent speech to the national conference.

"Today, as in 1995, the Bahamas needs less secrets, and a real plan with meaningful targets and firm management."

Meanwhile, there is deep concern in the business community about the unemployability of many high school graduates. This has led to calls for more technical training in an effort to remediate the situation by giving young people basic job skills.

But Frederica Faye Brooks, a senior teacher at A F Adderley Junior High, argues that more technical education can't substitute for the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic:

"Ditching the present educational system for a more technical one sounds good; but it is too drastic," she told Tough Call. "I do not know if you are familiar with the Royal Readers? Those six readers took students from the basics all the way to college level.

"They laid a foundation. One person who was hired to extend a house said he would put in the foundation when the building was finished. The building is unfinished still. This is what has happened to some students in the Bahamian educational system.

"Without a sound foundation, any system is bound to fail, no matter how much it tries to cater to students and their needs. Yes, our educational product needs to be fixed. We do need more technical/vocational programmes. But even if a new school was established for technical/vocational training, we still need to teach basic skills."

Ms Brooks was one of the first graduates of the old San Salvador Teacher Training College, which later merged with the College of the Bahamas. She has a degree in English and secondary education from Worcester State College in Massachusetts.

Technical education in the Bahamas used to be spearheaded by something called the Industrial Training Council dating from the 1980s, which managed the training centres that later became the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute. The council has been dormant for some time and BTVI operates at a very basic level today, offering a few entry-level courses in the building and automotive trades as well as in cosmetology.

According to industry lecturer Keith Dean, who contributed a research paper to the education conference, even the institute's own graduates complain about its courses and instructors.

In fact, some observers consider BTVI little more than a joke: "At one time they had a $30,000 vehicle sitting idle because it needed repairs – and they supposedly train mechanics. In addition, the campus is in a state of disrepair, yet they teach carpentry and other building trades."

According to one car dealer who is a member of the Bahamas Motor Dealers Association, "we used to help with technical training in various ways. But these days we offer advice only. No-one seems interested in serving on their board anymore.

"BTVI is typical of most government-run operations. Results are not measured and no-one is held accountable. Many of our member firms have designed their own in-house apprenticeships, and with manufacturers moving to Internet-based training we see little need for the services of BTVI."

As Mr Dean confirmed in his conference paper, "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."

The Bahamas is certainly not alone in its educational woes. A recent report on education reform in Jamaica said only 20 per cent of secondary graduates qualified for meaningful employment.

And the United States has spent billions over decades with little to show. To make up for this, the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was an unprecedented bipartisan commitment to greater accountability and flexibility in American education.

Earlier American attempts to fix failing schools were confused and ineffective, experts say, "But the No Child Left Behind Act has a timetable and sanctions that hold public officials' feet to the fire, forcing them to make long-overdue changes."

According to the US, "States, school districts and schools are still doing the hard work of implementing No Child Left Behind, and the early returns are promising. Recent studies of state achievement data show that reading and mathematics scores are up in most states, and that achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups have begun to narrow."

This is the kind of reform we need to see here. But first and foremost we need to acknowledge what the real problems are and make an upfront, frank assessment of the choices. Then we have to build bipartisan agreement on the way forward.

But since the Ministry of Education doesn't even bother to produce a yearly report on how it spends over $200 million of the public's money – as required by law – we don't hold out much hope for achieving such complex and dramatic changes.

What do you think? E-mail your comments to: larry@tribunemedia.net

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, August 3, 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: larry@tribunemedia.net

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