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Beyond the 'prison study'

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, February 11, 2014    

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Something good may come from the "prison study" debacle. At least, people are arguing passionately about the state of education in Jamaica.

We are 40 years behind on the blueprint provided by Michael Manley in The Politics of Change (1974). Chapter Four deconstructs our education system and points to one befitting free people in a modern economy.

"...The Jamaican educational system does not reflect a realistic balance between the needs of economic development and the actual training that is provided. The system offers courses that reflect the social prejudices which we have inherited from the past and bear little relationship to the kind of economy which we must seek to build," Manley said.

He identified architects, engineers, cost accountants, statisticians, computer analysts, radiologists, research scientists, soil chemists, agronomists, farm managers, and business administrators as the kinds of skilled personnel "indispensable to a modern economy".

A few people are now talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) albeit with the same trepidation with which one approaches someone with a deadly contagious disease. And, in the wake of the "prison study", we make arbitrary comparisons between our lack of progress and countries like Finland, Poland, and Korea.

The comparisons don't seem to recognise that we had a mandate to transform education and propel economic growth or that what makes transformation immediately possible in these countries is driven by a different set of socio-cultural realities, compared to either Jamaica or the US.

In the case of the US, it is a heterogeneous nation of more than 300 million people. A typical classroom in many urban areas comprises majority minority-race students, or likely run near equal numbers of whites, Hispanics and African-Americans. Asians, Africans and West Indians form other dominant sub-groups.

With this kind of demographic, every correspondence from school to home has to be written in at least three languages. Most children also speak a language at home other than the language of instruction, and socio-economic backgrounds can range from welfare status to extreme wealth.

Socio-economically, socio-culturally and linguistically, Finland, Poland and Korea are homogeneous. This means that all the children are starting off at essentially the same place. Finland, for example, is a sparsely populated Nordic country with one of the highest per capita incomes and the best social welfare systems in the world. Classroom instruction is in Finnish, their mother tongue, and no student will turn up at school hungry. If something is to make a difference in educational outcome from one student to another, it would hardly be socio-economics. Amanda Ripley, in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way, identifies teacher quality as that variable.

Annie Murphy Paul, reviewing the book in the New York Times, August 2013, says this: "The appeal ... comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing — and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We're Americans, after all. We're not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way..."

America won't because it can't. Furthermore, for reasons described above, America will always spend more and get less in education output relative to countries like Finland.

Ripley's study offers a perspective based on limited research — three American teenagers studying in each country for a year. But the way research works, for every project espousing one position, there may be hundreds more advancing another — sometimes the exact opposite. A sound argument must examine those other points of view.

There is little relevant comparison between Jamaica and Ripley's test cases, but there are many between us and the United States, including serious issues with poverty and inequality. Also, our linguistic situation is complex: the majority of our children speak one language but we instruct them in another. We should not need research to tell us why this is a problem.

Toward radical transformation, it will be helpful to answer Manley's question: How does Jamaica view its possibilities and how can its education system assist in their realisation?

Current debate must recognise that education is dynamic and informed by a world view stripped of the middle class lenses through which media, especially, views everything. The concept may be useful for some purposes, but it is not a measure of an individual's worth or potential.

The achievement gap — "the observed, persistent disparity of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by socio-economic status (SES), race/ethnicity and gender" — is real. It shows up on standardised test scores, grade point averages, and college enrolment and graduation rates. Authoritative sources include the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Education Trust, the Education Equality Project, the National Center for Education Statistic, and America's best universities.

A 2011 study, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children by Stanford University sociologist Sean F Reardon, for example, finds that as the income gap between high- and low-income families widens, the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widens.

"The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 per cent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier...Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children's achievement," the study says

It flies in the face of common sense to argue that socio-economic factors do not make a difference in educational outcomes or that any one variable can be responsible for the success or failure of student learning.

It is time we get it right. Education is crucial to the peaceful, prosperous society we crave. It is inseparable from the just society we need.

Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice.

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