I’m sick and tired of the ignorance-based sophistry that’s currently passing for a serious education debate in Jamaica.  

There’s too much academic pontificating while teachers, the sine qua non of any education system, are cast as villains; targeted for chastisement; and thereby made the system’s victims.  If our teachers are so god-awful (and some most definitely are) then we need to upgrade their standards or replace those who won’t with those who will; those who can’t with those who can.  It’s utter nonsense to indiscriminately punish teachers for governments’ persistently perverse profligacy by downgrading their benefits especially those related to improving their proficiency. 

This is how I translate the Education Minister’s sectoral reprimand of teachers from political gobbledygook to plainspeak: “Governments’ priority has never been education.  Consequently, Jamaica’s teachers are the world’s worst paid; we don’t have enough schools; and the chickens hatched by attempts to cover up education’s neglect with regular child torture sessions called Standardized Exams are coming home to roost.  Decades of over-spending has finally produced bankruptcy, recession and an undereducated population.  We’ve no plans to atone for this sad state of affairs.  We won’t take any salary cut.  We’ll drive brand new SUVs.  But SOMEBODY has to pay and who better than you, the teachers.  So here’s how we’re going to balance the budget so we can buy more SUVs and return to spending like drunken sailors to win elections.  We’ll cut teachers’ benefits.  Teachers upgrading qualifications can’t do that during school holidays despite this being the best time for them to focus on course requirements.  Stop using term time to correct homework or give special attention to weak students. Use it to upgrade yourselves.”

But what better can we expect from an Education Minister who says “Sex Education, yes; condoms No!”?  Surely he’s not serious?  Could it be that he’s opposed to sex education but so wants to sound politically correct that he wanders into paradox?  Because, if you’re going to educate about sex in 2013, I’m afraid condoms will be essential.  Here’s some breaking news: the best way to teach condom use is actually to teach how to use condoms.  Or maybe Ronnie prefers to incorporate Roman Catholic dogma into education policy by teaching teenagers that unsafe sex is ordained?  It’s no wonder he seems not to grasp we may need the odd teacher if the education system is to work.

 Media commentators seem to have swallowed this hogwash whole referring to Rev Ronnie’s speech as a “call to action”.  Let’s stop calling a spade a shovel.  In 2011, U.S. high school teachers earned between US$35,940 and US$84,000 per annum basic pay.  The median was about US$54,270.  In 2013, a Jamaican high school teacher earns between US$4,075.00 to US$27,330.00 basic pay.  The highest paid Jamaican high school teacher earns 76% of the lowest paid in the U.S. 

This tells me right away that our priority education problem isn’t that teachers need pay or entitlements cuts.  The problem with our education system is it’s just plain awful.  It fails to teach children what’s required.  Simply put, the purpose of any education system should be to prepare children for life.  In Jamaica, we assiduously prepare children to pass exams.  If we’re serious about reform, we must now ask ourselves “What needs to change so we can begin to prepare our children for life?” The answer lies in adopting two simple stages.  One:  Get better teachers (or, get teachers better).  Two:  Allow teachers to teach.  It’s not rocket science.

It’s NOT the answer to reduce teachers’ motivation.  Everybody addresses the study leave issue as if we have a fully qualified teacher cohort and can afford to pick, choose and refuse among them.  We don’t.  The vision must be to get to that point as a condition precedent to a decent education system.  That would be a Jamaican vision for Jamaica’s betterment which may be in conflict with the IMF’s vision for the better payment of our foreign creditors. 

If our leaders insist on bowing and scraping at the IMF altar, fine, but don’t blame our teachers.  Firstly, if it’s the Jamaican vision we choose, then the system must be reformed so it can produce this vision.  Right now, qualified persons want to become accountants; bankers; computer programmers; insurance salesmen; anything but teachers.  Teachers aspire to become bankers; accountants….. You get the picture.  Tertiary graduates must be encouraged to become teachers.  In the meantime, teachers must be encouraged to become tertiary graduates.  We can’t “pinchy-koby” education. 

I confess I have an accidental advantage in this debate probably not available to many other participants.  The Old Ball and Chain, my warder for the past 30+ years, is 50% Finnish.  Her mother’s brother (who, for the protection of the local larynx, we’ll call “Uncle Esko”) is a retired teacher in Finland.  Over the years, whenever visiting Jamaica, he’d deliver many proud, private lectures about the Finnish education revolution which started about 40 years ago.  Uncle Esko owns his own home plus a cabin in the woods where he spends his winters hunting and fishing.  He’s fiscally comfortable and travels to Jamaica and elsewhere whenever he wants.  Why?  He’s a teacher.  He and his colleagues prepared Finland’s children for life.  His country is grateful.

So, let’s begin with Finnish teachers.  They’re selected from among the top 10% of tertiary graduates in the country.  Many who apply are rejected.  Finnish teachers’ starting salaries are lower than in the US, but Finnish high-school teachers with 15 years’ experience make 102% of what other college graduates make.  In Finland, experienced teachers are the highest paid professionals in the land.

Forty years ago, with Finland in a fiscal mess, its Government took a conscious decision that the transformation of its education system would be THE key propellant of the country’s economic recovery plan.  Finland decided education first and budgeted accordingly.  Finnish students take only one mandatory standardized test, at age 16. No Grade 4 test.  No Grade 6 torture chamber.  No competition for places in “elite” schools.  No calling children “failures” because governments have failed them.  Just teaching every child.

The Finnish mission is to prepare children for life.  The motto is “Whatever it takes”.  Finland’s success wasn’t recognized until 2000 when the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results revealed Finnish youth to be the best readers in the world. By 2003, Finland was first in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. In 2009, Finland came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math. The U.S finished 25th in math; 17th in science; and 12th in reading. To achieve these results, Finland spends 30% less per student than the U.S.  Finnish funds are spent on teaching not testing.

93% of Finns graduate from high school (US rate less than 80%; Jamaica less than 40%). More Finns (66%) than Americans and from every European nation are accepted to college. Before academics start on me about the difference in size etc, here’s an inconvenient fact: Finland performs much better educationally when compared to similar Scandinavian nations with similar demographics

The following story of the Finnish way overcoming the challenge of one backward child is revealing.  In a September 2011 article published in The Smithsonian magazine titled “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” Lyn Nell Hancock wrote:

          “….at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo,…west of Helsinki, …Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators (including a social worker, nurse and psychologist) convinced Louhivuori that laziness wasn’t to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete……

‘I took Besart on that year as my private student,’ Louhivuori told me……. When Besart wasn’t studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class……., cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By [year-end], the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, LEARN.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. ‘You helped me,’ he told his former teacher.  Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. ‘No big fuss,’ Louhivuori told me. ‘This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.’”

It’s an expression I’ve repeatedly heard from Uncle Esko.  Finnish education’s systemic successes, admittedly secured in a country with a low poverty rate and an authoritarian culture, were won through high levels of teachers’ academic preparation, social status, professionalism and motivation for the job.  We won’t emulate Finland’s success by de-motivating teachers.  Playing politics by encouraging undisciplined parents to appeal to the Education Ministry whenever a teacher speaks harshly to their child isn’t the way.  Standardized tests won’t successfully replace education by pedagogy prepared to give each student individual attention.

Any “call to action” aimed at teachers by Government is inherently disingenuous.  It’s Government who should be called to action.  Until we acknowledge there’s no more important societal group than teachers; until we start treating our teachers with respect; until we insist on proper qualifications; until we pay them better than any other public servant thus encouraging fully qualified applicants for teachers’ posts; until we trust the education of our children to teachers and not to ministry officials or torture chambers disguised as standardized tests, we’ll never be able to justifiably demand better performance from teachers nor will we attract teachers capable of better performance.

Are we prepared to bite the political bullet and cut the political umbiblical cord (pun intended)? Or shall we maintain the illusion of education as just another area of budgetary over-expenditure?  For how much longer must talented children whose parents can’t migrate to Canada face life unprepared while the nation incessantly argues semantics? 

Peace and Love

p.s.  Apologies to Winston Wallace who should’ve been credited last Sunday for authoring “Land of my Birth”.  Thanks to Juha Kurkela, research scientist, mathematician/physicist from Helsinki, Finland (formerly resident in Jamaica), who sent in the correction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: