As one who specialised in the teaching of mathematics as a student teacher and who offered courses in pure mathematics in a three-year bachelor's programme, the idea of premium pay for teachers of mathematics did not come to mind. However, as an administrator it did. Many in the society voiced the opinion of premium pay for maths teachers as a solution to improving the teaching and learning of mathematics, a problem that has existed for several decades. Because most people everywhere have a phobia for the subject, the problem has been compounded. The truth is that for several reasons there has not been a systematic study of the root causes of the problem here. These could be related to the student, teacher, curriculum, assessment (examination), availability and use of mathematical aids and equipment, but who knows
for sure in the absence of empirical evidence?
The issue of premium pay for maths teachers has arisen again on account of the recent CSEC results in mathematics. As I predicted in my previous article, the disappointing results have generated the usual finger-pointing which takes us nowhere. Nearly everyone has a theory. For some, the study of and reflections on crucial philosophical, educational, social, political and economic issues have to be seriously undertaken with new data sets before strategic action is recommended or taken. There is no short cut. The issues need to be aired while urgent attempts are made to pinpoint the malady.
Some people view the core physiological systems in our bodies such as respiration and circulation, among others, in the same light as they view the core school subjects, language, mathematics, the aesthetics and science and technology. They think that none is more important than the other since they are all interdependent and indispensable to the respective systems. If one is below par then it needs to be brought back to par by increased expenditure. However, the expenditure may not necessarily be for the services of an additional specialist doctor or teacher, but for adequate nutrients/medication or student-friendly learning materials, as the case may be. The key issue is giving equal status to interdependent core systems on a sustainable basis.
This brings me to the educational issue. In the practice of teaching, the first principle in facilitating learning is to go from the known to the unknown. What we now know is that we should start with assessment, set standards, develop curricula, teach/instruct, re-assess/evaluate and modify in light of findings from continuous evaluation. Of course, other support actions such as allocating adequate resources, training, ensuring proper nutrition and managing resources efficiently should be taken concurrently. I would venture to say that for several reasons this process has not been systematically followed, particularly with respect to maths and other core subjects which necessarily involve all students. Since there is no quick fix of any learning achievement problem in education, we should exercise patience while we urgently study and tackle root causes. The authorities promise this.
Social, political, economic issues
Many thinkers hold that with teachers and students, the appearance of social classes within the body politic is unacceptable. Any action which appears to enhance social differentiation based on any factor other than level of responsibility is likely to be challenged. Then some people see paying a higher salary to some teachers who have the same qualification and carry out the same teaching function and responsibility as others would create social classes with the higher-paid teachers being regarded as having a higher social status. The perception becomes the reality. But the truth tends to come out by open and sober debate on the matter.
The matter of singling out some subject teachers for special pay remains a political issue within the domain of teacher politics and trade unionism. Those outside the organisation must take cognisance of the thinking within the profession on the matter. As the "workers" their views should be respected by the public. At the same time, the state has the ultimate responsibility to determine through a thoughtful method and mechanism what is best in the national interest and implement a pay regime that is equitable and defensible.
Many economists will argue that the market should be the mechanism used to determine compensation for maths teachers. They will rely on the theory of demand and supply. In that theory, where demand outstrips supply of maths teachers, all other things remaining constant, the cost of their services will rise, hence their compensation. But others will contend that education as a social good produced within the public system should not be made to conform to the theory of demand and supply in price determination. To date this has not been the case. For any change to be willingly accepted, it seems that empirical data on how premium pay has resulted in higher levels of math achievement would have to be brought to bear. Otherwise, the idea is best treated as a hypothesis to be tested. Then risks need to be assessed and selection criteria and process determined.
But are there feasible alternatives to premium pay? The authorities seem willing to listen. Let us start the conversation right, and keep it going.