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Are our school priorities skewed?

Lascelve GRAHAM

Wednesday, January 15, 2014    

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THE USA's education system used to be ranked among the best in the world. In the last ranking of education systems (2012) called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is very highly regarded worldwide, and produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the USA was ranked 24th in reading, 28th in science, and 36th in mathematics. A number of European countries, Canada and many Asian countries, where academic competition is intense, were ranked above the USA.

In an interview with Fareed Zacharia on his CNN programme Sunday GPS (1/12/13), Amanda Ripley, American author of the book The Brightest Kids in the World, which was based on the PISA results, expressed two key observations, among others:

1. There is almost no sports in the best schools in the world: Although all of these countries love sports and excel at some, sports is separate from school. It is not a part of the core mission of school. The problem is that sports can sometimes, if you don't constantly keep it contained, eat away at the mission of school, which is supposed to be education.

2. Although the systems and the structures are quite different in each country, the one thing that's true, with respect to the countries which produce the best education systems, is there's a psychology that says school is hard. You have to spend a lot of time at it. You have to work hard. You have to succeed. It's almost exactly the same attitude many of us take toward sports, which they take toward academics. There is a big contest at the end, not everyone is going to win — to get better, critically, you have to practise and work harder.

In Jamaica, the education system leaves a lot to be desired, with about 50,000 children entering high school yearly and about 6,000 passing five subjects, including English and mathematics in one CSEC sitting. Yet, not only is there sports in schools, but competition is of such intensity as to be counterproductive to the core mission of school. Some have even expanded the definition of education in school to include sports, not as an adjunct but as an integral part of the curriculum, refusing to understand that the focus of school is on technical and academic education and does not encompass the whole spectrum of education. There are many ills spawned by this intensity, including the cancerous importing/recruiting of students for sports purposes, with its attendant cover-ups and other negative features. By this we are unwittingly ensuring that we remain one of the storehouses of cheap, unskilled labour for the global economy.

We get the best of what we celebrate. Let us start celebrating education and proper socialisation. In Jamaica, we need to develop a culture where education is at the forefront of the story we tell about ourselves. We need to stop using our schools as the developmental arms of our various sports associations. The celebration of sports over academics generates a conflict of interest in our schools, oftentimes leading to the abuse of our youngsters and to the warping of the key socialising role of these schools by the transmission of improper messages/lessons to our impressionable youth, among other things.

If we make the necessary changes in attitude and actions we will still produce our world beaters. Remember that we have produced many world beaters who did not attend any "preferred" school or Champs, eg George Rhoden (Kingston Technical), Les Laing (Dinthill), George Kerr (Knockalva), Keith Gardener (Black River), Mel and Mal Spence (Kingston Technical), and there are many more. Many of our world youth and other champions in recent times did not attend "preferred" schools: Odail Todd (Green Island), Dexter Lee (Herbert Morrison), Lerone Clarke (William Knibb), or even Usain Bolt (William Knibb). We also need to remember that only a very small number will be able to sustain themselves as professional sports persons and that a sports industry will depend heavily on educated personnel.

My alma mater is a good example of the thinking of the alumni and others associated with our high schools today. St George's College is the only high school in Jamaica to have produced six consecutive Jamaica scholars. It is now 50 years since the last recipient, yet this generates no consternation, no agitation, no stir among the Georgians. However, after we had gone for 20-odd years without a football trophy, it was a crisis of enormous proportions, a catastrophe, as if the sky were falling. Something had to be done to restore our glory in football. We need to transfer this sort of reaction and action to our educational outcomes.

The editorial board of The New York Times (4/12/13) names Jamaica as an example of a country with extreme economic inequality, where the top ten per cent of the population takes half of the national income. The editorial board acknowledged that such concentrated wealth leads to growing household debt, cynicism and despondency, which is expressed in a lack of faith in Government's ability to do anything about the problem. Add to that Jamaica's recent ranking among the highly corrupt countries by the most recent Corruption Perception Index and the gravity of our problem becomes even more alarming.

US President Barack Obama has called reducing economic inequality and improving upward mobility "the defining challenge of our time". Crucial to achieving significant change in the areas mentioned is education, which is accepted as the engine of social mobility.

All countries which have made significant positive changes in education in a relatively short time have had to make very difficult decisions. For example, Finland shut down all its teacher training colleges and eventually reopened them in its most elite universities. Now, a highly ranked country educationally, it is said that getting into Education College in Finland is like getting into MIT in the USA -- very difficult.

Do our leaders have the courage to carry through the changes required in our education system? Do they have the will to put our skewed priorities in proper order, or will we continue to hear the usual cop out, "it's the culture"?

Dr Lascelve "Muggy" Graham is a former Jamaica football captain.

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