•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a sustained and critical national dialogue on the state and direction of Bahamian education, most intensely as regards primary through secondary education in our public school system.
Success in reforming public education will be achieved through pragmatic solutions, borrowing ideas from across the ideological spectrum while challenging those including, sometimes, union leaders opposed to reforms such as merit pay, and more testing of and review of tenure standards for teachers.
Success will require a broad rethinking by political leaders, the education bureaucracy and parents as to how schools are run, the quality of in-school leadership and what a truly magnet school system may look like in New Providence and Grand Bahama.
But success will be stymied by ideological fantasies as typified in a letter to the press by the president of a local think-tank, which proposed a single thread-bare argument producing this logical fallacy and tautological disaster: public education is a failure because, well, it’s public education, or the equivalent of teaching little Johnnie and Jenny that the sky is blue, because the sky is blue.
Such thinking leads to simplistic solutions to the challenges in public education, such as: fully privatize public education and a renaissance in teaching, learning and parental participation will flower, accompanied by a chorus of Kumbaya.
Though the letter failed as satire, it succeeded as farce -- what to avoid when reforming public education. Readers may recall that farce is comedy, “which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant and improbable situations” characterized by “the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense”.
The unintended farce of the letter produced a double failure: a failure to diagnose why our public (and private) education systems often fail with regard to various metrics pertaining to national development and individual achievement, and an abject failure to offer a thoughtful response to these pressing issues.
Helpfully, a 2005 report sponsored by the Coalition for Education Reform, representing a mix of union and business groups, recalls a 2004 BGCSE Report: “Were it not for the private schools and a few public high schools in the Family Islands, the mean grade for the country would have been an astounding E [rather than D]. This [level of academic achievement] is totally unacceptable.”
The Coalition also informs: “Furthermore, the mean grade for the public high schools on New Providence was F+ while the mean grade for the private high schools on New Providence was D+. Both the absolute levels and the gap between the two are truly disturbing.”
So, even though facts won’t pry some “true believers” from their ideological cocoons, thankfully, the Coalition’s report offers a variety of reality checks.
N. G. M. MAJOR
First, there are well-performing public schools now, and throughout our modern history, as there are well-performing students in generally low-performing public schools. With successful public schools such as N. G. M. Major in Long Island, named in honour of master educator Nelson Glanville MacFarlane Major, a public school graduate, the problem can’t simply be public education in itself.
As an aside, in a devastating rebuttal, Ralph J. Massey stripped bare the argument of privatization as panacea: “If one looks at the world and asks: ‘Are the best national systems publicly or privately owned?’ one would have to admit that they are mostly government-owned and/or directed and financed.”
Secondly, while the Coalition notes that “the absolute levels and gap between [the BGCSE mean grade for private and public high schools on New Providence] is “truly disturbing”, what is alarming is that the mean grade for private high schools on our capital island was a low D+ as of the writing of that report.
Of course there are other measures of learning such as graduation rates and student proficiency in terms of literacy and numeracy. And there are multiple reasons for such achievement, whether in private or public schools, here and abroad, and why certain jurisdictions, countries and schools excel while others struggle. One of these is social ecology or the immediate environment and broader culture in which teaching and learning occurs.
The letter from the think-tank’s president, while appreciating the key role played by parents, foundered on faulty conclusions and clichés: “It is past time to return the responsibilities of learning back to the parents to make the education decisions for their offspring.”
Not only did that primary responsibility never leave parents, too many parents shun their basic obligations to review homework, turn off the television and fill their homes with books rather than digital games, resulting in lacklustre graduation rates and scores of school-leavers who are basically illiterate and innumerate.
Forget the grand schemes about total privatization. Various measures of student achievement can dramatically improve by the end of the upcoming school year if considerably more parents help their children with homework, support decentralized school boards or consistently hold teachers, administrators and other public officials more accountable.
What they should hold officials more accountable for is the quality of school leadership and teaching, critical elements in student achievement. Despite improvements in these areas, there is much to be done to produce, evaluate and reward more capable administrators and teachers, while sanctioning and removing those retarding progress and learning.
Some suggest that total privatization and the magic of the market will not only transform our education system, but will also somehow magically transform the social ecology that hampers student success, including a variety of various social ills and poor or non-existing parenting and unstable homes:
“It is anticipated that the resulting ‘private schools’ will become self-sustaining as market forces come into play as they are not required to compete with a state education monopoly. The competition for pupils at affordable rates to the parents will raise the level of proficiency unachieved by the state-run schools.”
Of course, the preceding public service announcement is faulty in terms of economics and inconsiderate of the needs of smaller island communities in our far-flung archipelago.
Meanwhile, those bedazzled by the type of school vouchers debated in the U.S. may wish to draw their star-spangled gaze home, recognizing how their fervent desires, sustained by successive governments, are closer than imagined.
Grant-in-aid is our tax dollars subsidizing our children’s education in non-state schools, a practice prohibited in the U.S. school system. Another name for grant-in-aid: vouchers!
Without these funds helping to keep down tuition costs, many thousands of Bahamians, over many decades, would never have been able to exercise their “parental choice” to send their children to private schools.
But even with these “voucher” funds many parents still have to find thousands of dollars yearly to send their children to private schools. And even with grant-in-aid and school fees and gifts from large donors and alumni support, most of the private schools mainly populated by middle-income students struggle to pay recurrent expenses much less finance capital and development projects.
Obviously, the problem isn’t the ability “to compete with a state education monopoly”. The vexing challenge is that education is extremely expensive whether the funds come from the public purse or a parent’s wallet.
Moreover, why are those who feel so entitled by their own opinions predisposed to ignoring verifiable facts? With thousands of students having graduated from or enrolled in private parochial and independent schools, how can someone so blatantly attempt to mislead the public into believing that a state monopoly exists?
Further, the farce that, “The competition for pupils at affordable rates to the parents will raise the level of proficiency unachieved by the state-run schools,” is nonsensical. Quality education is not a commodity to be sold like fast food or other pre-packaged, microwaveable imports with questionable nutritional value.
In an upcoming Front Porch, this market-is-magic mindset will be examined, along with some ideas for educational reform, beyond the rose-coloured glasses of ideological extremists who insist that the market has few or none of the solutions, or all of the solutions when it comes to reforming public education.