Not a good look, JTA
Get on board, seismic shifts necessarySunday, May 16, 2021
Face-to-face classes for students preparing for exit exams resumed at some 500 schools last Monday. Education Minister Fayval Williams used the occasion to reveal that the ministry which she leads was considering mandatory summer school to help address the learning time loss caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The idea makes eminent sense to me.
Williams told Radio Jamaica on Monday, May 10, 2021 that, “[T]he details were not yet fully agreed... We have to do all that we can to recover from what we've lost during the pandemic.”
Wherever those details are being fine-tuned for agreement, it appears far from 97B Church Street, Kingston, the headquarters of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA).
In a report also on Radio Jamaica, last Tuesday, Jasford Gabriel, JTA president, made it clear that he was opposed to the idea of mandatory summer school. Among other reasons, Gabriel opined that, “Many of them [teachers] have not left the [computer] screen since March of 2020, and it has taken a toll on the health and well-being and mental wellness of our teachers, and they are looking forward to the [summer] break.”
According to the mentioned news item, the rejection last Tuesday was not the first by the JTA of the Ministry of Education's proposal for mandatory summer school to address the learning time loss caused by the pandemic.
I disagree with the JTA's position. I know that the JTA prides itself, among other things, on being a democratic organisation which encourages diversity of views, even when they are not in sync with the association's positions. I have had a close association with the JTA for a long, long time. I worked as the communications officer for the teachers' union for a number of years. Notwithstanding, I humbly submit that the union's decision to again reject the Ministry of Education's proposal for mandatory summer school to address the learning time loss is a very bad one, especially in the context where the JTA has just rejected the Government's offer of a 2.5 per cent increase in salaries and salary-related allowances for financial year 2021/2022.
As with representational politics, a trade union needs to have public sentiment firmly on its side in order to garner support sufficient to allow it to influence and/or pressure the Government to act in its favour. If John Public feels that the position of a trade union, especially one as important as JTA, is antithetical to national interests, the job of the union becomes that much more difficult, and that's in normal times. When extraordinary conditions render normal redundant — as is happening with the pandemic — a trade union has to work doubly/triply hard to ensure that public sentiment is at the centre of its decision-making.
Folks on social media have not been kind to the JTA for its outright rejection of the Ministry of Education's proposal for mandatory summer school to address the learning gap caused by the absence of face-to-face instruction for an extended period. Some of the commentary regarding the union's decision on traditional media has been scathing.
The National Parent Teacher Association of Jamaica (NPTAJ) has expressed support for the summer classes proposal. Stewart Jacobs, vice-president of the association, told Radio Jamaica News that this would be useful approach to reduce learning loss, describing it as “most appropriate at this time”.
He said there had been “limited or disrupted teacher contact time with students over the last year and a half”, and therefore this proposal “makes quite a lot of sense”. ( Radio Jamaica, May 11, 2021)
If the critical lobby of one of the major stakeholders in education does not inspire a rethink of position by the leadership of the JTA, maybe a revisit by them of following news items and the attendant details should:
Headline: 'Learning loss — Ministry finds significant gaps due to COVID' ( Jamaica Observer, December 4, 2020)
Headline: 'Educators say students are struggling with online learning' ( Jamaica Observer, May 5, 2021)
Headline: '120,000 students missing from classes over the last year' ( The Gleaner, May 5, 2021)
Headline: 'High rate of absenteeism among students worries education minister' ( The Gleaner, April 10, 2021)
A little over two weeks ago Education Minister Fayval Williams, in her contribution to the sectoral debate in the House of Representatives, announced that the Government had decided to sponsor extra lessons for students after schools return to normal in order to help address the learning loss experienced since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic last year.
She noted that the decision was made after identifying that students had not been getting the required amount of content contact and needed to compensate for it. The JTA enthusiastically applauded the Government's decision.
“We are all aware of the significance of the learning loss that has taken place, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, and also we should bear in mind that, even prior to the pandemic, the education system was not necessarily been meeting the needs of the 21st century learners. But, given what has transpired since the pandemic, it is a good suggestion,” said its president. ( Jamaica Observer, April 30, 2021)
So what explains the JTA's eagerness for the extra lesson proposal, but repeated rejection of the mandatory summer school to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic?
The answer is obvious. Obvious, too, is this question: Wouldn't the teachers' “health, well-being, and mental wellness” be severely challenged as they administer the extra lessons?
Assuming there is a full resumption of face-to-face classes in September, or some time thereafter, I anticipate that students, parents, and other education stakeholders are going to be placing extraordinary pressures on the teachers at all levels of the education spectrum.
Make no mistake, the pent-up demand for goods and services which economists say will bust open like a mega hot air balloon as soon as the pandemic is tamed will not bypass our education sectors. For that and reasons mentioned I don't buy the explanation which the JTA has put forward for its continued opposition to the proposal for mandatory summer school.
Straight away someone is going to introduce a red herring; namely, that my comment here constitutes an attack on teachers. There can be no sacred cows where public accountability is concerned. We cannot somersault over realities which are blindingly obvious.
The fact is, trade unions are not private clubs or sacred cows. I don't buy into a view which seem to suggest that some people, groups, or offices are holier than thou. No democracy which is worth its salt can successfully function in that self-defeating manner.
The trade union is a critical pillar of the democratic process, particularly so in developing societies like ours. I contend that they begin to lose their savour when they are pigeonholed or, worse, insular.
The action of some of our trade unions sometimes forces me to ask: Has the 'me in my small corner' mentality totally gutted the 'it takes a village' cultural traditions and orientation?
Our trade unions need a new mission and vision. I fear that if some of them continue in the present mode, like the dinosaur, they will become extinct.
Seismic shift needed
'Williams cracks whip on teachers' was the Gleaner headline on May 3, 2021, which threw many in our education system in a furious tizzy, some loosened their britches and were seemingly ready to fight, and still others condemned the remarks at the start of Education Week.
The article gave these among other details: “The performance of educators in the classroom is to come under greater scrutiny from the Ministry of Education in its ongoing drive to improve outcomes and efficiency.
“Education Minister Fayval Williams has accused administrators and teachers of short-changing students and offering the country a low return on its investment.
“Williams, who was appointed to the portfolio in September, said she was particularly concerned about the deliverables in schools.
“ 'I was very careful to note that accountability is not the same as blame. Accountability means taking responsibility for the results, whether they are good or bad; assessing those results, taking the action to make those results better the next time,' Williams said during Thursday's virtual press conference, which drew on her sectoral debate presentation a day earlier.
“Low teacher effectiveness, the minister said, was in need of urgent remedial action.
“Williams said that a review of several reports of the National Education Inspectorate was evidence of the years-long crisis of teacher effectiveness in many primary and high schools.”
Williams did not say, anything hitherto unknown. Some of her predecessors have made similar and even more forthright remarks, but I dare say, not at the start of Education Week.
Be that as it may, we cannot continue to be quiet about the fact that our education system continues to massively underproduce with respect to the kind of results that are needed to enable Jamaica to become “the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business”.
Our education system needs a total uprooting.
This reality is a national embarrassment: Headline: '65% of Jamaicans aged 25-54 have no examination passes at secondary level, according to survey' ( Nationwide News Network, April 19, 2021).
We have been spending millions of dollars on textbooks, lunch, transportation, teacher training, upgrading of school facilities, commission of studies and studies of studies, numerous pre- and post-primary and secondary programmes, and yet our education system continues to extensively underproduce.
Something is dreadfully wrong. The longer we take to come to this realisation, the longer the rot and its related consequences will be heaped upon our heads like hot fire coals.
I have said in this space before, but it bears repeating, that we have in this country a veritable assembly line of social conditions which feed the development of criminal behaviours. If we are going to significantly interrupt that awful assembly line of negative conditions, quality education is one of our best bets.
I don't for one minute blame teachers for all the long-standing ills of our education system, but I am not a member of the misguided throng who, conveniently, sidestep the fact that there are endemic weaknesses in our education system which are directly tied to decades of underperformance by teachers.
Among other things, teacher underperformance is directly related to poor teacher quality. Numerous studies have shown that the quality of teachers shows a stronger relationship to student achievement than even school facilities and curricula. That is a settled matter in education. We have many research papers which outline what Jamaica needs to do to recruit, reward, and retain quality teachers. They are gathering dust on shelves.
While cobwebs and silverfish become the masters of these reports, the mentioned survey, which was conducted on behalf of the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin), has told us that, “Even among those who've achieved CXC [Caribbean Examinations Council] passes, the majority failed to make the grade in the critical subjects of mathematics and English in 2018, with only about 40 per cent having passed both.”
There is a crisis! We need to stop the rot. Paradigm shifts are what Jamaica needs; pockets of excellence cannot suffice any more.
We have been going around in circles, mimicking the actions of the proverbial dog chasing its tail, all while a 2018 finding by the Jamaica Productivity Centre told us that the workforce has become less productive since the early 1970s.
At the same time, we are rapidly producing miscreants, dons, 'donettes', and super-spreaders of crime and violence.
“The best way to improve the [Jamaican] workforce in the 21st century is to invest in early childhood education to ensure that even the most disadvantaged children have the opportunity to succeed alongside their more advantaged peers,” is a statement attributable to Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman about America.
I believe it is applicable to Jamaica.
A 2014 World Bank study found that Jamaican teachers spent 11 per cent of total classroom time off-task or not engaging in teaching or classroom management. Ten per cent of off-task time was equivalent to 20 lost days in a 200-day school year. We need to bring a halt to this travesty!
Teachers need to concentrate on teaching and learning, not fund-raising to ensure that critical school programmes are kept off life support. Government needs to fund schools adequately.
We cannot continue to have the majority of our students failing to meet the minimum standards to access post-secondary education and training. Rhetoric and half-hearted measures do not result in seismic shifts.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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