Letters & Opinion

The problem with Education? Where are the answers?

By Stephen Lester Prescott

LATELY, there has been much discussion about education. Concerns range from the effectiveness of the school curriculum, the quality of teacher education and certification, teacher competence, student ability, to the poor state of the school plant, etc.

Unfortunately, many of the conclusions and recommendations emerging from these discussions are based on uniformed positions, unquestioned assumptions and knee-jerk reactions that shed little light on the deeper and often-hidden issues that retard any real improvement in education.

A closer investigation of these discussions exposes an underlying theme of ‘blame’. Policy makers and technocrats blame principals and teachers, teachers blame parents, parents blame children.

Within the education system itself, tertiary-level instructors blame secondary-school teachers, secondary-school teachers blame primary-school teachers, upper-primary school teachers blame early-primary school teachers and early-primary school teachers blame parents, parents blame children. Caught in the blame game, the children — who are the real victims — are powerless to demand meaningful corrective action, while the adults keep pointing fingers away from themselves.

However teachers, situated on the frontline of education work, are the ones who receive the brunt of the criticism and have become the punching bags for those looking to absolve themselves from any responsibility for problems facing education.

The underlying sentiment from critics is that teachers must be able to deliver effectively, irrespective of the conditions within which they work: crumbling walls, dripping ceilings, lack of resources, burdensome tests, etc.

Additionally, teachers are expected to perform effectively even in situations where children face myriad challenges which cause them to be at risk of academic failure.

In effect, teachers are expected to magically overcome all of the social ills which bedevil the education system and when they are unable to do so, blame ultimately falls on them.

With all the talk from the Prime Minister about teacher certification, teacher competence and the quality of teacher education, it is clear that once again, teachers are deemed to be THE problem with education. It’s as if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (often used in the world of business), which explains how unfulfilled basic needs retard emotional, psychological and academic growth, does not apply to the work teachers do in the classroom.

But what really is the problem with education? The answer is that it does not reside in education.

While many problems are manifested in education their genesis is really outside of the education system — and unless we understand this, we will continue to focus not on the causes of the problems but on their effects. It’s like focusing on the symptoms of a disease rather than on its cause. This is not good enough.

Policymakers need to begin to take an introspective look into their own understanding of education and the role they play in defining its eventual outcomes. They must understand that education policy is PUBLIC policy and all public policy work together in a network where change in one demands and effects change in another. To be clear, meaningful change and improvement in education cannot occur without a concomitant shift in health, housing, socio-cultural and socio-economic policy in particular.

Taking Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs into consideration, hungry children, no matter how smart they are, will have great difficulty to learn, despite the best efforts of the most qualified or experienced classroom teacher armed with the most up-to-date curriculum and state-of-the-art resources.

However, teachers are NOT responsible for the living conditions of the children they teach. Neither are they empowered with the authority to improve the conditions of children who are facing challenges of abuse, hunger, homelessness, malnutrition, etc.

For the sake of argument, I will focus simply on the most basic of needs and assert that teachers are not in the position to ensure that children’s basic physiological needs — air, water, food, sleep, clothing, shelter, sexual identity — are secured towards self-actualization. This is NOT the responsibility of teachers. This is the responsibility of the state, since it is the state that designs the socio-economic arrangements that determines the living conditions of its citizens.

Let us take a look at some of the basic physiological needs that must be met if children are to self-actualize and succeed socially and academically. Which government ministries are responsible for framing the policies pertaining to water, food, shelter, and clothing? Are schools responsible for children’s access to quality air, water or housing? Are schools responsible for the quantity or quality of children’s sleep or clothing? Are schools responsible for ensuring that children have access to nutritious food? Who is?

The St Lucia Labour Party understands the impact that policies outside of education have on the work that teachers do in the classroom (could this be related to the fact that educators have always featured prominently in successive SLP cabinets?). Let us take the Labour Party’s stance on school meals and ask the question: what does ensuring that children have access to food every day have to do with education? Everything! because as indicated previously, hungry children cannot learn until that basic need is fulfilled. Therefore, the problem is not an educational one but a socio-economic one which manifests itself in different ways in the classroom: high absenteeism, listlessness, poor concentration, indiscipline, poor learning, teacher burn-out etc.

It is for this reason that the new approach to the school feeding programme engineered under the direction of Hon Moses Jn Baptiste with the support of the FAO, the Brazilian government and the local private sector, serves as a model for the type of multi-dimensional policy making which could bring improvement in student performance and meaningful reform to the education system. Understanding the link between access to healthy food and academic performance, three ministries, Agriculture, Education and Health came together to devise policy which would bring together, school kitchens, school gardens and the primary school curriculum.

This is how it worked. With the donor funds, the Ministry of Agriculture took the lead in helping school administrators develop their school gardens. The Ministry provided technical assistance, seedlings, equipment, irrigation systems, water tanks, greenhouses etc. The Ministry of Health provided baseline information on the health of the students and established the health guidelines that would determine the nutritional quality of the meals served in the school kitchens. The Ministry of Education facilitated the participation of principals, teachers and cooks in workshops and worked with the Ministry of Health to establish nutritional, health and safety standards. The next step was to introduce breakfasts to the meals provided to students.

What were the expected outcomes of this approach? (i) Disadvantaged children and those most at risk of academic failure are provided with a meal that helps to meet their nutritional needs and reduce on their level of absenteeism. They are therefore better able to access the school curriculum and experience academic success. (ii) Since students are actively engaged in planting and reaping crops and in maintaining their school gardens, they are, in fact, participating in curriculum implementation in a manner that is meaningful, authentic and relevant. In other words, students are actively applying their knowledge as they learn. (iii) The lessons learnt from this hands-on involvement in agriculture are invaluable when we take into consideration the concern for our food import bill and food security. (iv) The lessons children learn about the link between nutritious food and good health are critical in combatting life style diseases. (v) Savings in the monies spent on purchasing the items used to prepare school meals. (vi) Because children present fewer discipline, academic and physiological challenges, teachers are better able to concentrate on providing quality instruction. (viii) The implementation of truly transformative curriculum that works in tandem with the development goals of our country.

Improving the living conditions of children is one of the most effective ways of improving the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. Relatedly, ensuring that students have access to nutritional food is a basic step in improving the living conditions of a significant number of our children (it may be time to consider including breakfast to the meals provided to students). Simply put, our education system is dependent on various public policy centers to improve the lives of children and ultimately, the quality of education they receive. So when we look to find the answers to the so called problems in education, we may want to take a deeper look at what exists outside of education.

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