STUNG by criticism that it has not been doing enough to address students' dismal performance in math, the education ministry has unveiled a new policy designed to improve the results in national and regional examinations.
The policy document, which ministry officials shared with the Jamaica Observer last week, is intended to promote better teaching of mathematics at both the primary and secondary levels. It also takes into account the need to place greater emphasis on the subject at early childhood institutions and in teacher training colleges.
The announcement comes weeks after the country was told that average performance in mathematics in this year's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination declined from 33.2 per cent to 31.7 per cent.
Closer examination of the CSEC data for the last 10 years reveals an even more frightening picture, as more than 70 per cent of eleventh graders, in any given year, leave high school without even sitting the mathematics examination.
While performance in the regional exam has been a long-standing problem, the averages at the national level, particularly in the Grade Four Numeracy Test, provide little consolation.
A look at performance figures for last year reveals that only 43 per cent of the grade four students achieved mastery, an increase over the 34 per cent in 2010, but way below the ministry's target of 85 per cent by 2015.
For officials of the Education Ministry, the country must improve in mathematics to safeguard its own survival. "The implications to the nation of consistently poor performance in mathematics are far-reaching and significant. Not only is it important that Jamaica produces good mathematicians in order that they may fit key roles in society, but it is also vital that persons who emerge from the school system — at whatever level — are equipped with basic numeracy skills in order that they may be empowered to participate equitably, effectively and efficiently in the wider society," reads a section of the National Numeracy and Mathematics Policy.
The document also raises serious questions about the country's ability to effectively participate in the global environment. "As Jamaica strives to take its place within a fiercely competitive and highly globalised marketplace, the workforce will need to be equipped with reasoning, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Experiences provided in the mathematics classroom should be geared toward the development of these skills, which are critical to an in-depth understanding of other subject areas and to improving our nation's performance in industry and commerce," the document continued.
It is understood that the new policy is the product of consultations with several organisations, both in the public and private sector, and with stakeholders in the education system.
Speaking with the Sunday Observer, National Mathematics Coordinator in the Ministry of Education Dr Tamika Benjamin emphasised that the new policy seeks to establish standards for all levels of the system.
"Critically, it speaks to standards for teacher education, because currently there are no standard in Jamaica; and so it goes into things such as minimum matriculation requirements for entry into teacher education programmes. It speaks to what the programmes should look like, and ensures that adequate effort is made to build the content knowledge of the student teacher, as well as how they should teach the subject," she said.
Benjamin explained that persons desirous of becoming mathematics teachers will be required to sit a diagnostic test before being accepted into the programmes at local teacher training colleges. Among other things, the policy proposes that teachers of mathematics at the early childhood to secondary level must have at least a bachelor's degree, with specialisation in mathematics.
The math coordinator added that the new policy will correct circumstances, particularly at the primary level, where some teachers, as a result of their own weaknesses, opt to reduce the amount of time devoted to mathematics, turning instead to subjects with which they are more comfortable.
"It speaks to clear guidelines for who should be teaching at what level of the system. It speaks to standards for contact hours, as we have found variations, and a significant part of it speaks to how the subject should be taught," said the math educator, as she indicated that some elements of the policy, relating to in-sevice professional development, are already being introduced.
While not speaking to the additional costs that will result from the implementation of the policy proposals, she asserted that Education Minister Ronald Thwaites has already committed to providing the resources needed to address the problems that have been identified.
She added that over the next two months, officials of the ministry will be travelling islandwide to make public presentations on the new policy.
The first in the series of consultations which target parents, private sector representatives, teachers, students, and other individuals takes place at the Montego Bay Community College on Tuesday at 2:00 pm.
"Following the consultations, there will be a review and then external consultants will be brought in to fine-tune the document. The minister will then present a related ministry paper," Benjamin explained.