Careers & Education

No additional numeracy specialists for primary schools

BY LUKE DOUGLAS Career & Education senior reporter douglasl@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 24, 2012    

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THERE are no immediate plans to increase the number of numeracy specialists serving Jamaica's primary schools, even though less than half of the students at the grade four level are achieving mastery in the critical subject.

This was revealed by the Ministry of Education in a written response to questions from Career & Education about the ministry's efforts to improve mathematics results, especially at the primary level.

According to former acting national mathematics co-ordinator Warren Brown, there are 25 numeracy specialists in the education system, and they will be utilised as efficiently as possible throughout the six education regions in the island.

"At present, there are no plans to go beyond this number. While the ideal would be to have more, one has to be creative in the management of the available resources. There are to be approximately four specialists, inclusive of a regional mathematics co-ordinator, per region; this will be led by the national mathematics co-ordinator," he said.

The functions of the numeracy team, Brown explained, include:

* offering technical support to schools in mathematics teaching and learning;

* helping the region and individual schools to analyse and use data to inform plans;

* the professional development for in-service teachers; and

* developing a sustainable system.

Performance in mathematics continues to be a problem at the primary school level, with only 49 per cent of students achieving mastery in the 2011 sitting of the Grade Four Numeracy Test (GFNT).

Among public primary-level schools alone, 46 per cent achieved mastery — an eight-percentage-point jump from the 38 per cent who achieved mastery in 2010.

Only 33 out of 790 schools had 80 per cent or more of their students achieving mastery in the GFNT.

Since taking office in January, education minister Reverend Ronald Thwaites has stressed the importance of Jamaica and the region improving their math scores.

Speaking at an education symposium last month, Thwaites said the region's passes in mathematics of 20 per cent in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate present a "gruesome picture".

Asked to comment on the reasons why some schools outperform others, Brown said the better-performing schools tend to have stronger leadership and more parental support.

"Usually the better-performing schools have much stronger and better organised levels of leadership. This makes it easier for these schools to have better-supported academic programmes," he said.

"Parental involvement is critical too, as research has proven that there is a positive correlation between parental/home involvement and children's academic achievements," Brown added.

However, he said the effect of class size and quality of teaching on students' performance was not clear, based on the test scores.

"While class size can be an important [factor], it is the smaller schools that are performing the lowest. From the data, the schools with zero mastery had a sitting number of between one and 20 students. It has been seen, even though there is not any substantial empirical evidence, where teaching quality is the deciding factor," Brown said.

Brown, who has since reverted to his substantive position of regional numeracy co-ordinator for Region Four, acknowledged that there was much to be done as it relates to teacher training.

"Many of our teachers are frequently using teaching strategies that are not aligned to research-based effective practices in mathematics. There is a tendency for our teachers to revert to teaching how they were taught; hence [many] of our classrooms lack the minds-on and hands-on approach to teaching math," he said.

On May 7, Dr Tamika Benjamin of Mico University College returned to the Ministry of Education as National Mathematics co-ordinator.

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