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THE BIG PICTURE: Teacher quality

Ralph Jemmott

THE BIG PICTURE: Teacher quality

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Minister of Education Ronald Jones has been at it again. Addressing a forum Education For All Stakeholders on May 12, he declared with the customary bravado and gauche gesticulation that he was coming out of hiding and that he was not afraid of rubbing people the wrong way on issues relating to the improving the quality of education in Barbados.
Jones’ association with education is long-standing. He was a primary school teacher for most of his life, a leader in the BUT, shadow minister of education and minister for the last six years. Why and where was he hiding and from what? That the Minister is concerned about the quality of schooling is highly laudable.
While quantitatively Barbados has for some time universalised access to primary and secondary education, many have questioned the qualitative output of the system. Formal schooling is about three things. Firstly, it is about the philosophical, theoretical formulations that inspire the system. Secondly, it is about process, the actual structures and strategies employed to promote the theories and thirdly, and most fundamentally, it is about outcomes – whether and to what degree the student population actually possess the learning outcomes in both the cognitive and affective domains.
Barbados has historically spent large sums on education and, according to the Minister, some $600 million in the last year alone. For those expenditures, the country is deserving of a respectable return on its investment, but as any student of pedagogy knows, educational output is not necessarily commensurate with monetary input.
After 1997, the Blair government  in Britain lavished funds on education, so that in 2008 the country was spending, according to the Economist, above the rich-country average on education. But the magazine questioned what it termed “the dubious quality of the end product”. Then, the OECD ranked Britain 17th among 57 countries in literacy, 14th in maths (below the average) and 14th in science, described as “a poor showing for a country with a fine intellectual tradition”. More worryingly, it claimed, a very large number leave school without “baseline qualification”.   
There are few spheres of human endeavour where results are dependent on so many variables as formal schooling. Some of these variables will relate to the school, quantity of provision, quality of teachers and of teaching, efficiency of leadership and the social ecology or ethos of the institution.
However, some factors are outside of the province of the school: certain physiological factors affecting children, levels of material poverty, culturally enabling or disabling home environments, and the wider societal environment in which schools function. Schools do not stand alone; they are the centre of conflicting external pressures. Thus the stated positive purposes of the school are often frustrated by countervailing negatives from the home, the media, the peer group and the wider society.
One of the problematic aspects in schooling relates to “optimality”, knowing how well any given system can be realistically expected to perform given the material, cultural and other constraints that inhibit educational proficiency. If a study is made of 11-Plus, CXC and CAPE results over the last ten years, it might offer some idea of how the system performs and can be expected to perform. What percentage of students consistently get in the 90s, what percentage over 75, below 30 and how many below ten or fail to score. 
There is a dearth of concrete data as to how the Barbadian school system performs over time. In declaring his emergence from hiding, Minister Jones is quoted as saying, “Practice guerrilla warfare where necessary. I’m tired”. Jones must prepare his speeches and stop talking off the top of his head. Pray tell what exactly would constitute “guerrilla warfare?” Guerrilla warfare on whom? Shades of cracking heads and shooting people?
We are told that children today were born with micro-chips, (Could there be demons in the microchips?), but were being taught by “insipid” and “uninspiring” teachers. Not all teachers are or have ever been “inspiring”. But what type of Minister of Education defines teachers as “insipid”? It is not surprising that bright young people are not lining up to become career teachers. Is it possible to obtain less “insipid” teachers? Then, horror of horrors, he draws a comparison between the capacity or willingness of children to learn from dancehall artistes and from their teachers.
Maybe, instead of going to training college, prospective teachers should consult with Movado, I-Octane and Lady Saw. How does one compare the ephemeral mindlessness of muscular entertainment with the challenging gravitas of in-depth learning? Maybe, we could move to a new paradigm, Education-Fest, Education pun de Hill, schooling pun de San?  It is often said that our students lack critical thinking skills. Is much of what the Minister of Education is reported as saying reflective of critical thought or qualitative education process?
Maybe, it is not surprising that elsewhere in the region, some view “The Idea of Barbados” as being considerably diminished.                              
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.