A Nation of Dunces?

January 25, 2008

Maybe we don’t have that now, but if we let the Ministry of Education and the JTA do what they have become such experts at — coming up with new ways to punish our children and undermine their education while claiming to do otherwise – then that’s what we will surely get. Seems like we are well on our way…

So, all knickers have been in a knot for the past few days since Andrew Holness announced that children who do not pass the Grade 4 literacy exam will not be advanced to the next grade until they – the language says it all – “achieve mastery”. Of what, its not clear; I don’t see how we can really claim a child is literate simply based on passing an exam whose contents are not even known to the general public, and which has not ever been subjected to any kind of scrutiny or public debate at any time. I can bet that Andrew Holness himself would not pass any literacy test I would give. 

Remember, this is the man who, in his abundant wisdom, decided that our children’s education (and literacy) should not involve knowing or engaging with ideas that seem contrary to or challenge the status quo.   He decides what our children need to know, and clearly, when they need to know.  Grade 4 is the litmus test.  Hmm….so, if they know how to recite Bible verse but can’t meaningfully discuss or parse out various interpretations of said verse, they are literate? My pre-kindergarten child could run circles around Mr. Minister on that one alone!

Anyway, everybody jump up pon dis ya bandwagon, bwoy!  Yes, hold dem back! Dem is a disgrace! Dem illiterate! (yep, cuss di pickney dem for a condition that is also true and never questioned for many, many, many adults. Does anyone plan to explain this to the children?)

Today’s headline says that Jamaica Teachers’ Association “applauds” Holness’s proposition to keep children back.  Applaud?? What exactly is original about this? How does this measure do anything besides make politicians feel good an puff up dem chest?

But it sweet dem teachers yes.  That’s how they feel most powerful – – punish the children.  Make our children feel even more inadequate, and gi’ di teacher dem a whole nedder year fi beat out the self-esteem out of children who are already underachieving.  Lovely. 

Speaking of not mastering literacy, Maxine Henry-Wilson goes on record as saying that promotion to the next grade is necessary because if not, students will be labelled “dunces” and they will not be motivated to learn.  Maxine dearest, you really must read and speak more carefully.  It is now a truism in education research that children who are being labelled “dunces” or “failures” were assigned those labels in some form long before the promotion issue came up.   It is because they are not motivated and are being discouraged in many ways – inside and outside the classroom – why they are unable to learn, and thus, don’t pass whatever test we subject them to.   This is the crux of the self-fulfilling prophesy.  What does this mean? Non-promotion in itself does not cause harm to the child; rather, it is the context (teacher behaviors & attitudes, peer interactions, family attitudes, quality of school life, etc.) in which the child is being educated that matters most.  You don’t have children being labelled “dunce” in situations where there is awareness of how students’ aptitudes are being fostered and channelled.   That right there, says a LOT about the school environments that we put our children in, and the role of administrators and teachers alike in demotivating our children. Along the way, maybe we want to examine the term “dunce” and why teachers (and many adults) would even see it as appropriate to use in ANY circumstance.  What does that say about you as a teacher when you feel so free, so justified, so self-assured, so, so RIGHT, to label a child as a “dunce”?

But notice, not one degge-degge word in all this coverage ’bout how dem same blasted teachers a go do better wid dem said pickney wha dem neva teach – – and probably couldn’t — the first time around.  

Everybody can come up with grand statements about how to make the children suffer for their failure to live up to the schools’ responsibilities, but noone can say, in as many sentences, sound bytes, parliamentary speeches, what have you, what are the ways they will, and we can collectively, ameliorate the situation. 

Reading to children is a critical step; and based on the nature of the discourse around education and literacy — not the same thing, don’t confuse them — access to and engagement with books function more as a tool to reinforce social status. On that point, I think Tara Clivio is a great example of what is wrong with the thinking of many Jamaicans of her ilk. You cannot engage them in dialogue without being reminded – and often beaten over the head – about how superior they feel themselves to be. But being so enamoured of the WHO is speaking, with the assumption that they must have something important to say, we might never even consider WHAT they are saying, and whether its useful to us. “Streaming” the education system? Sweetheart, tracking is what we have always done. How do you think you got the education you did? It’s nice that you are reading to children about MLK and you learned about the Holocaust at 7 years old. What do you want, a medal? Oh, you already got the column. More to the point, if you think asking 7-8 year olds to “make a connection” and to empathize with historical actors/movements like the African American civil rights movement is some novel strategy for engaging children, you didn’t help them nearly as much as you think. And if you feel fine with reporting that one of these privileged children said that “[they] would feel very sad because they might be talking about something interesting and I wouldn’t be able to hear” then, Tara dearest, we have a long, long way to go in this society. At 8 years old, that child already identifies with and understands white supremacy as ok, and you did not provide any way to help her understand the power of those ideas and the effects on people’s lives. I also suspect that you did not prompt any discussion about the ways the family histories of yourself and those children contained the very elements you treat as a distant issue. So, whatever conversation you are having with them definitely needs improvement; complexity of your ideas would be a good place to start. Again, a certain Pre-K child I know would make those kids look very bad indeed…

And what about making sure that our children are literate well before they reach Grade 4?  You know, emphasizing literacy as part of the entire educational process, well before the test?  Oh no, Holness does not think this is a good idea.   And certainly not if it comes from Ronnie Thwaites.  So, really, the message is, the teachers at the basic school and grades 1-3 don’t need to be involved in this reading and writing ting at all.   Really, if they wanted to, they could sit on their backsides and don’t do nothing, because this is not their problem.  If children fail the Grade 4 test, well, that’s the problem for those who teach Grade 4, isn’t it?  They will have to deal with the repeaters.   No, we just need to pass them on from Basic-grade 3, and if dem buck up at Grade 4, den mek smaddy else deal wid dem.  But somehow, what this pompous ass is declaring is being called a “literacy plan”. 

I don’t want to state the obvious, but I might have to.  Um.  A child’s ability to become literate is established long before he/she enters school, and is highly influenced by the broader social environment, including home.   But Holness recognizes this, sort of.  How?  True to form, he threatens and warns parents, is your fault if your children don’t know how to read.  And is ready to shame them along with their children for the failure of our education system.   Yes, our very smart and esteemed minister clearly doesn’t realize that if  parents and caregivers themselves are not literate, and if literacy is not supported in the public sphere, it is highly unlikely that home spaces can provide the kind of support for literacy that children need in this flipping RE-TV environment.  Speaking of which, yuh eva si one o dem politician or entertainer wid a book yet?

Does Holness and the rest of them really think that making children sit through the same conditions that promoted their illiteracy will somehow have the opposite effect the second time around?  Yep.  Well, he doesn’t offer any other kind of plan.  He has declared.  We are all warned.  So let it be.

How does this rash decision affect the overcrowded classrooms that already contribute to some children getting more attention than others, one outcome of which is not learning how to read and write?

Sure, every commentator alludes to space concerns, but not one word about the qualifications of those very teachers who were supposed to be teaching the kids in the first place (In general, I don’t think that teachers are always to blame for everything that goes wrong in the education system, so nuh bodda jump dung me t’roat).  I do think that we have had a very bad situation in Jamaica where our teachers are not properly trained to do the work of education that is required in this day and age.  Much is asked of them for sure, and in response, they still resort to the tactics of shaming and high-handed dismissiveness that they have been using since I was in school.  Somehow, in Jamaica, teachers are supposed to be beyond criticism.   In my view, their job is not just to be authorian (really, fascist) and to “discipline” [meaning beat, silence and dominate] our children (BTW, this penchant for ‘discipline’ is apparently the major selling point for Jacn teachers who go to the States to ply their trade; are they up to date on how to teach and communicate with children? dat’s a whole nedder matter…) 

There was really a generation of great teachers (I am no fan of British colonialism, trust me, nor am I wont to be nostalgic…) that is now lost.  They were either so in love with the ideas of “great literature”, the nobility of education (even if we were the savages to be ennobled…) and of teaching as a vocation, or saw teaching and education as a methodology for radical cultural change, that it was difficult for those of us in their classrooms not to be affected in a positive way.  Even if it meant that we read the same blasted outdated Enid Blyton storybook over and over again.  Even if we were in awe of the library and the notion that we could never read every single book, but we could certainly die trying.  Even if we didn’t choose to be writers, educators or spend our time in intellectual circles, the cornerstone was laid.  That’s what has inspired many of us to refuse to give up intellectual work, even though there’s little around to support that.  God, we don’t even support each other, but I digress…

Do you see or hear any of this in relation to teaching these days?  No, education is about turning out a properly trained working class for the “21st century global economy) (a helluva bullshit argument) and making sure that the middle classes are able to work in the “new information technology…’ and know how to manage and govern these workers.   Jamaica/Jamaicans haven’t bothered to think about what we want education to do for us as a society; we just leave that to the next political dunce to do.  And who, not since Manley, have not uttered one sentence that has not been filled with unintelligible jargon.  THEY don’t even know what they said.   And we just sit on our backsides and either support fascist efforts like this “hold back” policy, or silent with not an idea about how to make things different and more just.  

Education is the most political institution and ought not to be left to the whims of a highly manipulated market economy otherwise, we are truly fucked.  True educators who are worth their salt know this; they know its an uphill battle for the hearts and minds of the nation, but they do it.  Many of our teachers today are not educators.  They are workers.  They go to the school to do a job.   They do that job with as little effort as possible.  They collect a paycheck, go on vacation, show up sometimes, look to get over in every way that they can, and in the process, do marvelous damage to our children’s ability to learn and dream.  This is why we can be so busy producing dunces while we decry our very products.  But where in any of these public statements about education do they see our children as anything more than inventory to be managed by a corrupt, corrupt bureaucracy?  Where in all of this self-righteous rabble is there something to be gained that is more noble, human and worthwhile than passing that damn 4th grade literacy test?

Dem definitely ‘tep pon my big toe wid dis issue.   Mi nuh dun wid dis one yet.

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2 Responses to “A Nation of Dunces?”

  1. Omarian Anderson Says:

    You have nothing better to do than write this garbage. Your text is good manure.

  2. Long Bench Says:

    Omarian – Thank you for visiting. From your comment, it seems that you are one a product of our lovely education system, and you reflect it well. Maybe next time you can do a little more thinking and less reacting. For example, you might want to explain why you think my argument is “garbage”, and why you even bothered to leave a response.


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