Solv­ing the maths prob­lem

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Ron­ald Th­waites Ron­ald Th­waites is op­po­si­tion spokesper­son on ed­u­ca­tion and mem­ber of par­lia­ment for Cen­tral Kingston. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

THAT IS what math­e­mat­ics is sup­posed to do: make com­pli­cated things sim­ple. But many of us don’t see it that way, not be­cause we are dumb but be­cause we are not be­ing taught the sub­ject ef­fec­tively.

The data do not lie. More than 40 per cent of Ja­maica’s lat­est crop of GSAT stu­dents en­ter­ing high school this Septem­ber scored less than 50 per cent in math­e­mat­ics. For sev­eral, their lim­ited com­mand of English pre­vented their un­der­stand­ing of the thought pro­cesses re­quired to solve the prob­lems. It will take mas­sive ef­fort to over­come their start­ing chal­lenges.

At the ter­mi­nal CSEC level, only 47 per cent of en­trants – by no means all of the age co­hort – passed math­e­mat­ics. When we last checked, only 230 of the 1,788 teach­ers of math­e­mat­ics in our high schools were cer­ti­fi­ably com­pe­tent to do so. That is only 12.8 per cent. And that num­ber has very likely been eroded by out-mi­gra­tion since then.

Th­ese data il­lus­trate a na­tional cri­sis.

I have re­cited th­ese fig­ures again as part of an ur­gent ef­fort to make the com­pli­cated is­sue of na­tional de­vel­op­ment sim­ple. To achieve sus­tained, eq­ui­table in­di­vid­ual sat­is­fac­tion and five per cent GDP growth in four years and con­tin­u­ing, we have to solve the prob­lem of un­der­achieve­ment in math­e­mat­ics. It will not hap­pen oth­er­wise.


Last week, I was hon­oured to be in­vited to a press brief­ing at The Mico Univer­sity Col­lege of the Caribbean Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence in Math­e­mat­ics Teach­ing Pi­lot Project. This re­search ef­fort, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Univer­sity of Ply­mouth and fa­cil­i­tated by a grant from Ster­ling As­set Man­age­ment, both of which in­sti­tu­tions de­serve com­men­da­tion, went into a small sam­ple of Ja­maican pri­mary schools, de­ter­mined the weak­nesses in the de­liv­ery of maths ed­u­ca­tion, and of­fered re­me­dial coach­ing.

Among other causes, they found that many times, the teacher has in­suf­fi­cient grasp of the sub­ject be­yond the par­tic­u­lar topic of the les­son. They sim­ply did not have the aca­demic back­ground or the pas­sion to ‘make com­pli­cated things sim­ple’ for their stu­dents. This, de­spite the fact that all the teach­ers are cer­ti­fied com­pe­tent by the Joint Board of Teacher Ed­u­ca­tion and many would be hold­ers of a univer­sity de­gree.

And the con­sul­tant to the project stressed the cru­cial role of the early-child­hood and pri­mary sec­tors for achiev­ing self­con­fi­dence in math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts, both for stu­dents and teach­ers, to avoid what he called the ‘waste of nat­u­ral tal­ent and the long tail of un­der­achieve­ment’.


Two good things emerged from the event. The first is that the teach­ers who par­tic­i­pated in the pi­lot project are all demon­stra­bly much bet­ter maths teach­ers now, mak­ing the point that proven re­train­ing strate­gies can help and ought to be ramped up na­tion­wide now.

Also, the em­brace of the project by The Mico Univer­sity Col­lege presents a lo­cus and a lead­er­ship pedi­gree, pro­vided nec­es­sary re­sources are as­sured, for in-ser­vice pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment as well as stan­dards shar­ing with all other teacher­train­ing in­sti­tu­tions.

This na­tion needs to ac­cept that univer­sal, ef­fec­tive math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion is an es­sen­tial pre­req­ui­site of any growth strat­egy. Stop post­pon­ing dis­cus­sion on this sub­ject. By 2020, ev­ery teacher of math­e­mat­ics must be ap­pro­pri­ately cer­ti­fied and held ac­count­able. Ten­ure and com­pe­tence can­not con­tinue to be di­vorced.

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