by Larry Smith
"Well into the 20th century...Bahamian education was both backward and socially skewed. Many black Bahamians remained illiterate and only an exceptional few, whose parents could spare them and afford the fees, aspired to any form of secondary education.” -- Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in the Stream.
Although church-based schools have been around since the 1700s, it was the need to educate large numbers of emancipated slaves that led to the first "Board of Public Instruction" in 1836.
By the beginning of the 20th century there were half a dozen public schools on New Providence and 38 in the out islands (as well as a few private schools) teaching about 8,000 pupils in all. But over the past century, our education bureaucracy has exploded.
This year alone the government will spend $265 million on scores of public schools (and the College of the Bahamas) to educate more than 50,000 students. Yet experts say this massive investment is producing a growing underclass of functional illiterates who are virtually unemployable.
That's the startling verdict that is consistent with the research commissioned by a respected private sector group called the Coalition for Education Reform. This alliance of key labour and business leaders has been calling for dramatic education reforms over the past three years, but public officials don't seem to be listening.
Why that should be the case remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma, since the Coalition includes not only the Chamber of Commerce, but also the National Congress of Trade Unions and the Nassau Tourism Development Board.
Their initiative was triggered by "the crippling shortage of qualified Bahamians to fill jobs". And their first (22-page) report was issued in 2005 - during a national education conference. But Coalition leaders - including Barrie Farrington of Kerzner International and the late hotel union president Pat Bain - were unsuccessful in efforts to meet with government ministers and officials to discuss their findings.
Now, Tough Call has obtained a preliminary version of the Coalition's latest report, which reveals even more evidence of the crisis in our public schools.
At the start of the current school year, Education Director Lionel Sands gave a brief report glossing over many of the problems we face. He promised that schools would analyse their exam results along with feedback from the community "to identify weaknesses, develop a plan, and submit documented evidence of improvements at the end of June."
Under the heading "Education Officials Fired Up", a Miinistry press statement explained that this "school district improvement initiative is designed to improve student performance, enhance the learning environment and foster partnerships with all stalk-holders in the community."
We believe they meant stakeholders, but the point is that the Coalition represents some of the most important stakeholders in the nation. They are the businessmen and unionists who actually run the economy - yet they can't get a hearing from our politicos to discuss information that is absolutely vital to our survival as a modern state.
"The overwhelming and critical national problem is functional illiteracy on a large scale," says Coalition chief Barrie Farrington. "What we are looking at is a societal failure of immense consequences. It is a real nightmare; a horror movie."
Partly, this is because the technical to and fro about BGCSE exam results obscures the basic problem. Since this exam is taken by every high schooler regardless of ability, it's only natural - as education officials point out - for the nationwide results to reflect a low average grade on an eight-point scale. That overall grade has fluctuated between a D- and D+ ever since the exam was introduced in 1993.
Another point to consider is that the BGCSE does not pass or fail students. It tests what they know and can do, using eight grades: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and U.
But that's not the whole picture. Individual high schools in the Bahamas use a four-point grading system - based on classroom participation as well as test results - to determine whether a student graduates with a diploma. Under this system an F is considered a failing grade, and when it is applied to the BGCSE results for schools on New Providence, a clearer image of the state of Bahamian education emerges.
Under this standard pass/fail system, four points are awarded for an A, three points for a B, two points for a C and one point for a D. The F grade gets a zero in the determination of whether a student earns a diploma. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education does not aggregate this school graduation data, but it was recently reported that more than half of the 400 students at C V Bethel High School - one of the best in the public system - flunked out.
The Coalition's latest report applies this four-point grading system to the BGCSE data, with exams written at the E, F, G and U level scoring a zero and representing a failing grade. According to their preliminary report, "for all 93 public and private schools and for all exams in 26 subjects in 2007, 6 per cent of exam takers got an A and 36 per cent got an F - and an F clearly means failure as it appears to the high school principal."
Looking at the two most important subjects, 56% of students from public schools who take the English language exam "fail", and 82% of public school students who take the math exam "fail"."
According to the Coalition, "this is unacceptable. Everyone in business, science and engineering agrees that an understanding of basic math is critical to a range of both low-tech and high-tech jobs...from carpentry to computer system maintenance, the management of a small business and even the management of one’s personal finances."
The second issue addressed by the Coalition is male disengagement from education, and there can be no confusion here. Boys and girls enter school in roughly the same numbers, but only 39 per cent of the 23,000-plus BGCSE exams in 2006 were written by boys. And boys earned lower grades on average - meaning that girls got almost twice as many As, Bs and Cs.
"The overwhelming and critical national problems are the extremely high failure rates in high school English and Mathematics and the disengaged male," the Coalition says. "The BGCSE data support this conclusion. Not facing this issue merely causes the problem to grow year after year."
In its 2005 report the Coalition suggested 14 strategies to begin reforming public education. Their latest report highlights six of them:
Restore order and civility in the classroom - The reality of teaching in the public system is that resolving classroom conflict replaces learning and good teachers leave; which diminishes the system. The Education Act, the School Standing Orders, and the Manual for Administrators and Teachers are long on expectations and short on responsibilities and consequences.
Decentralise school management - Principals must be able to manage their “education business” by controlling budgets to optimize teacher and student performance. That means providing a proper physical environment, rewarding good teaching, and being able to hire, fire and discipline teachers and other employees.
Compensate good teachers - Given their responsibilities relative to other public service employees, teachers are underpaid and work in poor conditions. While there are good teachers in the public school system, there is a growing concern that some are poorly trained, mis-utilized or under-motivated. Annual performance reviews rate teachers on a five-point scale, and it is reported that virtually all receive an “Above Average” or “Outstanding" score.
Eliminate social promotion - Allowing students who have failed to meet performance standards to pass on to the next grade eventually rewards minimum effort with a lavish prom. Social promotion destroys discipline and cripples the learning process. Finding the means to end or greatly modify this practice is a gigantic problem.
Deal with the disengaged male - Any discussion of the education crisis must consider the consequences of the single female-headed family unit, and the related disengagement of the average father from parenting. Within this environment boys fall behind academically. One solution is the establishment of an all-male primary and secondary school to help shape the culture of the student.
Restructure education - Reforms cannot be implemented unless the Department of Education itself is reengineered and allowed to operate free of political control. Budgeting, incentive and management systems that are widely used in the private sector must be applied to a decentralized school system. And public schools should be able to adopt the proven elements that are conducive to learning in the private school system.
"Today there is a large education bureaucracy, a strong union and inflexible laws that govern employment," the Coalition says. "The bureaucracy, union and the politicians must be convinced that their long-term self-interest can best be served by their support of education reform; and they must take the necessary steps to make it happen."
We should be embracing the public-spirited efforts of this group of highly credible business and labour leaders, but the political response (from both major parties) has been nothing short of a cold shoulder. Somehow the country must awaken to the need to make hard decisions. If we don't, we can expect lower economic growth and increased social instability.