The Rubik’s cube of the Caribbean public education system: Addressing the challenges of the public education system through combined action

The very good news for Caribbean education is that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) has agreed that 2016 is the time to craft a Regional Strategic Action Plan that presents a harmonised approach to educational reform in CARICOM. The Human Resource Development Commission was launched recently with the main purpose of developing an Education Human Resource Development 2030 Strategy. The intent of the Plan is to ensure that the systems operating at all levels – national, sub-regional and regional – are developing the skills graduates need to function effectively in a 21st Century economy and society.


While this statement seems an obvious approach to refining and strengthening the education systems in the region, developing an agreed approach and time-bound action plan meeting the needs and priorities of the education systems in CARICOM will not be as simple as making an announcement that it intends to do so.


The CARICOM States' education systems are a Rubik's cube of elements that all have to interact in harmony to produce change.  Just as solving a Rubik's cube requires the alignment of all cubes of the same colour on a single side of the larger cube so that each side of the cube displays a different colour, so alignment of all of the elements of all of the education systems will be necessary to formulate a Strategic Plan for Caribbean education that will actually effect change in the system.


First, before listing the challenges, one needs to acknowledge that this new Plan will be constructed on the foundation of existing collaborative successes across the Caribbean. There are achievements of which Member and Associate States can be justly proud: achieving almost universal primary education and boasting an average schooling level of 10.3 in most States; collaborating on regional examination and certification systems of CXC, CAPE and CANTA, and increasing tertiary educational opportunities in the region through improved college programmes and an expanded University of the West Indies.  By establishing the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), opportunities for the best and brightest of graduates appear to be increasing, and the necessity to travel out of the region for a good education and a good job after graduation should be diminishing.


However, when one looks closer to home – at the individual cubes that comprise the whole Rubik's cube – the education picture seems less positive. The cubes align, but they aren't the same colour.  And just as originally there was a belief that the Rubik's cube was unsolvable, there are now competitions to see how fast competitors can solve it.  Just as Rubik's cube can be solved, so can the puzzle of component parts that form the Caribbean public education system.


This article, which is the first in a series addressing the challenges confronting the Caribbean education system that the Regional Strategic Action Plan must address, identifies the challenges presented by a phenomenon that is uppermost in many parents' and students' minds at this time of the year: how to successfully survive the stress of the regional examination systems. 


The education of its citizenry is the bedrock of national development in any country.  There is no question that the existing education systems in the region have identified, nurtured and graduated a wealth of bright and capable minds that have served both the region and many developed countries well.  However, these successes constitute a small percentage of the Caribbean citizenry – people of considerable talent and achievement who, by emigrating, denied their talents to their own countries.  Admittedly, some of the best and brightest returned or remained at home and continued to serve the development needs of their countries, but they still are a small percentage of their age cohorts. 


For many, school was something at which they couldn't or weren't allowed to succeed because of the very nature and structure of the test-based system.  And those school experiences, of success or its absence, have affected the rate of development in the region, as well of the lives of those who passed through the system.  Of particular note are those who weren't deemed to be successful, who the system labelled as failures as early as age 10.


A few years ago, the valedictorian at a well-respected Ontario university began her address by saying, “When you go home, I want all of the people in the audience who are here from [the name of the country where she was born and raised until she was 10] to tell the Ministry of Education that it is possible to be a success even if one fails the Common Entrance.”  It is worth noting that even a decade later, this young woman's first concern was to show that she had succeeded even though she “failed” the Common Entrance examination


At this time in the school year here in Jamaica, parents and students are suffering under the exigencies of the19th Century Industrial Age exam-driven education system that the British bequeathed to the countries of the region as part of their colonial legacy.  In the 19th Century, the point of the education system was to inculcate obedience in students, so that they could assume industrial jobs on a factory floor.  These jobs are very few in the 21st Century and their numbers continue to shrink. 


Ironically, in Britain, on which many of the Caribbean countries have modelled their educational systems, the importance of high stakes academic testing like the Common Entrance and the “O” and “A” Level examinations has diminished significantly, and routine articulation between technical and academic education streams has been established, especially with the increasing popularity of adult education and the need for further education building on acquired skills.  It seems to be much more difficult to bridge the divide between academic and TVET education in CARICOM countries.


Parents anguish over the exams their children have to write to “succeed” at almost all levels of schooling – in Grade 1 when they enter school, at Grade 3 to see their progress in Math and English, in Grade 4 to see whether they are literate enough to proceed to Grade 5, and the exit exam in Grade 6 .  Because school placements at secondary level in Jamaica are based on achievement at the end of primary school, their children's ability to be accepted in a “good” high or secondary school depends on scores on the Grade Six Achievement Test (rather than where the students live), the successor to the British-designed Common Entrance Examination that was long the hallmark of school achievement in primary school; “success” at the end of high or secondary school depends on scores achieved in CXC and CAPE examinations, the successors of the British “O” and “A” Level examinations. Admission to tertiary institutions, whether colleges or universities, depends on the quality of passes at CXC and CAPE.


Parents are investing in extra lessons (if they can afford them) to try to ensure their children's success in these examinations, and teachers are augmenting their incomes with extra lesson monies.  Indeed, the more entrepreneurial among their numbers are setting up private businesses in extra lessons (especially Mathematics) to feed the angst of parents who worry about their children's futures if they don't get high scores on the national and regional examinations. And, indeed, their worries are justified: even after years of struggle to improve Mathematics and English Language scores in CXC examinations – the two required subjects for tertiary level entry – the percentage of passes is still abysmally low.


While the extra lessons syndrome might not seem to extend to technical schools, those students enrolled in TVET programmes also are infected by the testing bug, since graduates must be certified through Jamaica National Vocational Qualifications (J-NVQs) or Caribbean Vocational Qualifications (CVQs) to gain employment beyond their own borders under the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).  Since many students were advised to enrol in technical programmes because they were not successful in the high stakes academic tests at the end of primary school or early in secondary school, the entire TVET system suffers from the perception that its students are not as “smart” as academic students.  Although this perception, constructed as it is on the outdated idea that academic students are “brighter” than TVET students, is wrong, it is still widely held among parents and the general public.


It is interesting to note that in Ontario, where community colleges were established 40 years ago to allow those who were considered less academically gifted the opportunity to get a tertiary degree, more than 30 percent of university graduates are now re-enrolling in a community college programme to acquire a skill that will make them employable.  The Caribbean is far behind the curve.


Educationists and employers alike have asserted that what students need to learn in school is broader than the memorisation of facts and their accurate regurgitation on an examination: employers in particular have said that they want graduates and employees who can solve problems, think critically, listen analytically, act independently, and express themselves accurately in speech and writing.  However, the test-driven education system is unlikely to create students who demonstrate these skills, since it  places high value on those teachers who can produce large numbers of students who can respond accurately to content-driven examination questions, and the means of getting  students to pass examinations is to teach them how to write those kinds of exams.


The CXC has been struggling with the contradiction between the demands of an Industrial Age education system and the employers' demands for a graduate from CSEC and CAPE with other skills by increasing the value of school-based assessments at the secondary levels, but the exams still feature heavily in calculating a student's grades.  Region-wide adoption of the new CXC Grade 6 examination that encourages problem solving and student involvement in their own learning has been slow.  Instead of adopting this Grade 6 examination, Jamaica is developing a news standards-based curriculum for Grades 1 to 9 and revising the approaches in its Grade 6 examination.


Changing testing and measuring student success also has implications for establishing international assessment strategies not dependent upon examinations alone, changing the curriculum for pre-service teacher training, changing teacher certification and professional development, strengthening the training of teacher educators and educational administrators, and conducting  dialogues with parents and employers.  Planning change of such deep-rooted systems poses a considerable challenge.


Thus, while Caribbean countries may have gained political independence, they have not yet managed educational independence. 


The areas of curriculum design, classroom instruction and testing are just a few of the areas the CARICOM Education and Human Resource 2030 Strategy and Action Plan will have to address, and constitute but one cube on one face of the Rubik's cube of the Caribbean education system.

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