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The cost of a good education

Franklin Johnston

Friday, December 21, 2012    

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WHAT is the cost of a good education?

Like many mid-century boys I was not well aligned with my early teachers and I paid for it. But I got a good education because my teachers persevered. I am most grateful. If my metaphors are outrageous and hyperbolic, blame the teacher who told to the entire range of English. And if my stream-of-consciousness style does not suit you, then read my eminent colleagues — just read!

I believe that the onus is on the teacher who like Jesus came not for the well behaved; they were trained for kids like me — feral but redeemable. I also used self-study as I mastered English early. English is not only a language, it's a gateway. You only need English to know the world and I was a voracious reader. Would you believe I read Audel's auto repair manual as a child? Why? My Dad had it and I could read. I read my first “De Lawrence” book too — it was funny. The Institute of Jamaica and Half-Way- Tree library were my domain. I marvel now that students pay for courses I learnt from books. It is cheaper than student loans, but I suspect they have not mastered English so they cannot. Between teachers and self-study I got a good education on the cheap. So, what is the cost of a good education? It is much desired, rarely achieved and only occasionally emerges from our schools. But I believe we can change this!

The question now: “Is education getting enough money?” Can the $80-billion budget deliver good education? I think so. The current education architecture does not make for effective, accountable schools; it is over-centralised, monopolistic, not fit for purpose and costly. If schools reverted to the church (and others) with the ministry as financier and quality controller it would offer choice and be cheaper. At present the Cabinet spends $1b plus for every 8,000 students and after transformation is complete, education will cost at least 25 per cent more with no assurance of better quality. Nonteaching jobs have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. Scandalous! Rumour is the advisor is stressed generating primary data yet dozens of laptops exist for email and Powerpoint only, as there is no active database to manage. And they put computers into schools? “Physician, heal thyself!” As a layman I analysed a small sample of church schools and it seems the state employs some four times their nonteaching staff, Wow! I hear the advisor laments the lack of technical staff, data and computer power to perform economic analyses and avers the need to transform education. Can't blame him! Can you envision a future in which the ministry gradually withdraws from delivery; protects and incentivises all teachers and is the financier and quality arbiter, ensuring access and fairness for all? Think about it. We can do it!

The ministry provides proof that teams of specialists without good managers of time, money and output, is a recipe for disaster. Do teams in curriculum, school oversight, etc innovate? Despite the explosion in media, technology and knowledge, most of the ministry runs as it did 40 years ago. Trusting or inept leaders did not question unaccountable educators or were fobbed off by easy answers. Stress from big “P” politicians in Parliament is par for the course, but stress from the small “p” ones embedded in a ministry, resisting change, is grief. That it takes upwards of five years to develop curricula in an age when knowledge doubles every year is a reproach to educators. Most regimes are obsolete by the time they reach the teacher. We need nimble syllabi, joined up to fluid competencybased tests to avoid lifelong “catch-up” which produces exam passes, not educated citizens. The final element to success is to enable and empower teachers to leverage ambient knowledge — it's all out there! Imagine a future with no prescriptive curricula or set texts in which we test reasoning, analysis and higher order skills not recall or rote learning. It matters not how you acquire competence but that you have it. We must demand it!

We will not get results or innovation now unless we offer a premium and we should not incentivise unless sanctions are equally acute. That we send educators to upgrading courses in hotels when the effective private sector does on-the-job upgrading is sheer waste. How many private workers stay in hotels to do courses or travel abroad for weeks to seminars? Educators do. The practice for specialists to report on and assess their work is like incest; not refereed or peer reviewed yet taken as gospel. The sad fact is good schooling is not the norm at any level. By Pareto's Law we should have 80 per cent ready infants entering primary school; 80 per cent good primary kids going to secondary and 80 per cent good students to enter tertiary entities. The usual tactic is to bypass — CAP, ASTEP are recent viaducts — not to fix the conduit. At no level institution do 80 per cent pass exams much more to emerge well educated. The value of good education is more than titanium or fissionable material. Value is worth ascribed and accepted by the powerful. If the rich say coffee beans found in monkey dung is best ... it is! The poor may set fashion but the rich set value. Good education is value. It gives access to a good life, opens the world of knowledge and the senses. Let us demand it!

What is the price of a good education? Value may be a bit “abzocky”, but price is real. What price would you pay for a good education? If you could get a guarantee at basic, primary and secondary school, what would you pay? Some pay $90 per term for Prep school, others $1M per year; most $1,500 to $25,000 to supplement fee-free education. Which one affords a good education? Would you pay $100k per year for basic school; $100k per term for grades 1 to 6; $120k for grades 7 to 9 and $150k for grades 10 to 11? What if the State gave you the credit/voucher? Would you pay to have a well-educated son? If we use the present budget to empower parents with choice, within three years the market would produce quality as Munro East, Campion West or Wolmer’s Middlesex campus in all parishes. The church would love it; every child wins and no parent would call the minister about GSAT or bus fares. Let's demand it!

What is the cost of a good education; not value, not price but cost? Cost is most important in IMF times. Some may ask who plots the latest cost curve? Who has the decadal cost analyses for each level of school? What variables drive costs? OK so this work is being planned, but will it be funded? What's the cost of good early childhood, primary or secondary schooling? Education economics is here and with ICT the ministry should have all metrics on call to the public. Does it? Are we spending enough?... too much? What team and ICT capability exist to do this work? Why not eliminate wankers and employ the skills? Check this. If Cabinet office approves by 2015 money allocated by 2017, work may start by 2019. Blimey! Will a resolute Cabinet back Minister Thwaites to fund crucial changes fast? Education is not nimble. Nine years to prove a curriculum failed? The new GSAT may be ready in 2017? Unacceptable! Can we do something? Hell yes! Parliament must weigh in and support these education base line analyses.

Is the education budget adequate, well spent? We can get more value but who cares? Their mantra is “if we had more we could do more!” or “if not this next year” Like me saying you will be paid “tomorrow”. Good education may well cost less but we need real time data, competent analyses and good managers. We have to insist that this be done for our education. Stay conscious, my friend!

NOTE: Be advised that I am still on earth. The news of my demise is a tad exaggerated.

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. Views expressed are his and all data used is in the public domain.

franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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