Are we really investing enough in education?Tuesday, June 08, 2021
Education Minister Fayval Williams, in her maiden budgetary presentation on the sector, identified teacher competency, increasing the number of specialist teachers, accessibility to master teachers, teacher accountability, and a revised teacher appraisal model as areas that will be given special attention by her and her team. For the legislative agenda, she listed the enactment of the Jamaica Teaching Council Bill and amendments to the Education Act as top priority. The minister also announced character education in schools and extra lesson as two critical initiatives geared towards improving student outcomes.
She further purported that, given the Government's current investments in education, Jamaica should have had a world-class education system by now. She utilised a World Bank report on the Jamaican education system to support this view.
The minister must be commended for identifying character education as being a priority for her Administration over the next fiscal year. Commendations are also in order for the decision to build more schools with boarding facilities, as well as the extra lesson initiative. It, however, should not escape us that the move to have an extra lesson programme, in many respects, is a clear indication of the failure of our education system to adequately respond to the needs of the vast majority of students in the system.
Return on investment
However, before one can even begin to have a conversation on the issue of return on investment in education there has to first be a conversation on what will a student leaving the Jamaican education system look like. In other words, what should the ideal output of the Jamaican education system be?
Having established what the output should be, there must then be a discussion about what are the necessary inputs in order to create that output. Only then can one get a clear picture as to the unit cost to create the ideal graduate, and whether or not the education system is really being properly funded.
If the unit cost to create the ideal graduate is, say, $300, but we are only investing $200, we cannot seriously expect to get any return on one's investment — certainly, not unless you want that Jamaican graduate to be, as we say in local parlance, made in China.
Percentage GDP on education
In her presentation, the minister did a comparison on the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) that was allocated to the education budget to that of some of our Caribbean counterparts, and that of Finland, which is largely accepted to have one of, if not, the best education system in the world.
I am not particularly interested in the comparison with our Caribbean counterparts. If Asafa Powell wants to be the best he cannot train with a Nesta Carter, but, instead, with a Usain Bolt. Using a percentage of GDP as a benchmark to measure funding of education is somewhat superficial and too simplistic. For example, Finland actually spends in excess of $1.7 million, per child on education annually. That is more than three times what Jamaica will spend on education per student this year.
Inequities in funding
What many of us fail to understand, is that one of the main foundations on which the model is built is that of equity. The inequitable funding of our schools is something that must be addressed, once and for all. The current model of school funding has certainly helped to widen the inequities within the Jamaican education system.
Schools are allocated funds per head. However, so-called traditional schools will always, invariably, have access to more resources due to the fact that they have a higher percentage of parents (as much as 90 per cent) who will make parental contributions. These schools' fees are also significantly higher than their non-traditional counterparts, where on average only about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of parents make their parental contributions. Further to this, the traditional high schools may have endowment/trust funds, strong parental, and old boys' support. It is also not unusual for corporate Jamaica to be willing to fund programmes and initiatives at these schools and not the non-traditional schools.
This, in and of itself, will create major challenges for school leadership of non-traditional schools. Many programmes and initiatives that they may have been identified under the school's improvement plan (SIP) will have to be shelved. In many instances, it does not even make sense to write to Ministry of Education for financial support for these programmes or initiatives. They tend to just go to file 13.
Research has shown that it is the children of parents who are involved in the school life of their child who tend to do well academically. Yet, in all of the discourse, we shy away from the investment, or lack thereof, that many parents make in their child educational development. This is particularly so amongst parents who fall at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. We simply cannot begin to have a conversation on returns on investment in education and not have a conversation about parental investment of time, effort and resources in their child's education. We need to confront these issues and deal with them. Many parents have shirked their responsibilities as parents in this regard. Sociologist have argued that many parents at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum place a low premium on education. This is not difficult to understand within the context of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
We have not even begun to talk about the pitfalls in our early childhood and primary education and the level of investment at those levels. This constitutes the critical foundation on which the education system is built. If we get the foundation wrong then the entire system will or continues to crumble.
The Ministry of Education should commission research looking into funding of education and what would be the unit cost to educate a student at the various levels of the education system. This can then be used as a benchmark to determine what is the level of investment that is needed in our education system.
The Government also needs to make changes to the inequitable funding model that is currently being used for schools. The Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) certainly needs to put this as one of the clauses to be agreed upon during negotiations for wages and fringe benefits with the Ministry of Finance.
The Government should perhaps consider separating early childhood and primary education from the Ministry of Education and create a Ministry of Early Childhood Development. Alternatively, a minister should be assigned this portfolio to drive the transformation that is needed at these levels.
The Government should strengthen the Child Care and Protection Act to better hold parents accountable for the education of their child/children.
Finally, the Government needs to add more social workers to the system, who will be charged with the responsibility to go out into the field to check on students who are chronically absent from school and provide the necessary support to these families where needed.
In the words of Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.,” We have for too long paid a very high price for ignorance in this country. It's a price that we can no longer afford.
Mark Malabver is principal of Yallahs High School, a doctoral student in educational leadership and management, and chairman of the Inner City Teachers Coalition. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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