Illiteracy, Human Capital & Reform

First Published: 2010-08-18

Recently the Minister of Education released the results of the 2010 Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education exam (the “BGCSE”). The good news was that the scores in a number of subjects ranging from art to religious studies improved; but the scores in English and math did not. In fact, they include unacceptable levels of illiteracy…a situation that has existed at least since 1993 when the BGCSE system started.

The implications of this level of academic failure and illiteracy should be frightening to the informed and concerned Bahamian.

The basic skills of attention, concentration, memory, self-discipline and symbolic and logical thinking are learned in the first years of schooling and are critical to all subsequent learning.  Under-achievement in English and mathematics in primary school has unintended consequences to the individual and to the country…likely lower life-time earnings for the individual, an inadequate supply of qualified Bahamian job-candidates at all skill levels and lower economic growth for the country.

Nevertheless, it is useful to step back for a moment and recognize that other countries are in the same boat.

For instance, between 1965 and 2001 the U.S. government (separate from state and local governments) spent $125 billion to end the separate-but-not-equal educational gap confronting Afro-Americans. In 2001 the facilities gap virtually disappeared; but during that period there was no measurable improvement in academic achievement.

This triggered the No Child Left behind Act that created a system of performance targets and incentives designed to produce change in 13,000 school districts across the country.

This has proven to be a truly difficult problem because academic failure was “institutionalized” in a rigid public education framework. The U.S. now has a politically powerful national teachers’ union that can effectively block change that is not be in its best interest. That is just one obstacle to be overcome.

The good news is that there have been major advances in the social sciences that have clarified the problem.

In Economics, for instance, it is the concept of Human Capital as pioneered by three Nobel Laureates at the University of Chicago…Theodore W Schultz, Gary S Becker and Robert W Fogel. The basics are —

•    Human Capital is created by parental and governmental investments in education, sanitation, nutrition, etc…and also on-the-job training and a culture that supports learning, work and discipline.
•    More highly educated and skilled persons almost always tend to earn more.
•    Few countries achieve sustained economic growth without having invested substantial amounts in human capital.
•    Human capital, not physical assets, is the most important form in which people hold their wealth.
•    The yields to the individual and the country from new investment in primary education are greater than a similar amount invested in secondary education; and in turn the yield from an amount invested in secondary education is greater than the same amount invested in tertiary education. This conclusion finds support from research in several disciplines.

Hopefully, these brief comments help define the problem…but uncomfortably they also suggest a task that is huge and complex…and…the nation is at the starting point on “The Road Less Traveled” (a reference to the 1978 best seller by the psychiatrist Scott Peck).

It would be helpful to the Minister of Education if the nation truly recognized the magnitude and the importance of getting it right.

August 13, 2010

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