Sunday, November 29, 2015

Closing the GSAT Gap

Library at Kendal Primary, ranked 5th in GSAT
in Hanover. Great Shape Inc donated many books
and assisted teachers at this school.
“Close GSAT Gap” was the headline in the Gleaner on Nov 24, 2015, the gap being between the high rankings of the Prep Schools and lower ranking of the Primary Schools. I would first question the reality of this gap, because the scores for the schools are based on the average score for all children taking GSAT in that school. If you considered only the top half of the entrants (for example the top 3 streams in a 6 stream school) in a selected primary school, you might well get scores comparable to those of the prep schools. The primary schools have no choice but to enter all the children who pass the grade 4 Literacy and Numeracy Tests. The numbers of entrants from some of these primary schools far exceed the numbers form any prep school; for example 257 from Corinaldi Avenue Primary and 251 from Mandeville Primary and Junior High. The prep schools are less likely to have as many poorly performing students, partly because the parents of prep school children are paying high fees and do everything they can to make sure their children get high scores.
The article implied that the prep schools are

In Mount Alvernia Prep Library, presenting copies of
Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, donated by past students.
performing very much better than the primary schools; and that the principal and staff of prep schools are in a position to advise the principals of the primary schools. If the principals of the prep schools took over the primary schools, I doubt if there would be any improvement in performance, given the environment and resources of the primary schools. The GSAT Gaps I am more concerned about are the gap between the performance of boys and girls; (it would be interesting to know the extent of the gender gap in prep schools) ; the gap between the best and worst performing students of any school; and the gap between urban schools (urban here meaning all urban centres, not just Kingston) and rural schools.
 In the GSAT Ranking supplement of the same day there were ‘Edu’ quotes. I select 2 of them which I think have a strong bearing on the GSAT Gaps.
1st quote from Maya Angelou: “My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
Buckingham Primary, a rural school
There are many people who do not see illiteracy as an impediment to advancing in life, and are skeptical of the advantages of education. They know of educated people, including trained teachers and others with university degrees unable to find jobs.  The children of farmers are extra pairs of hands, and are often taken out of school when they reach the age when they can be helpful. In urban areas, boys are sent out to hustle. Other young people get involved in criminal activities, such as ganja growing and ‘scamming’ which they consider to be legitimate means of earning a living. These attitudes are transmitted to school children whose parents don’t insist on regular attendance, punctuality or doing homework.
2nd quote from William Temple: “The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home.”
This is true all over the world. Studies have shown that 6-year-old children of educated parents have a wider vocabulary and a better command of language than those of less well educated parents. In Jamaica we have the added complication of having two languages. For many children, creole or patois is their only language until they start going to school. When they start learning to read, they have to make an abrupt shift to the unfamiliar syntax of Standard Jamaican English (SJE). They are also encouraged to speak this language at school, reinforced by numerous exercises in writing grammatically correct English. There is resentment against this in some quarters, English being the language of the former slave-masters and the present-day upper classes. As a result, children perform poorly, because all school subjects require competence in SJE. The children who attend prep schools are more likely to be fluent in both SJE and patois, so do not encounter the same difficulties or negative attitudes to SJE. 
I don’t think that the school communities of prep schools would be in a position to address either the language or the attitude barriers to improved performance in GSAT. What could make a difference?
In relation to attitude, there need to be more employment opportunities together with a campaign to inform people about the qualifications needed for these jobs. Politicians are fond of announcing “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” but fail to tell people they will need CSEC English to fill many of these jobs; and that preparation for CSEC English begins in Grade 1 of the primary schools!
In relation to the language dilemma, I submit that children should be taught to read, and have their early teaching in Jamaican creole. This suggestion has been made before and research has been carried out in several countries where a creole is spoken. I quote from an article ‘Creole Speakers and Standard Language Education’, by Gillian Wigglesworth et al, in the Language and Linguistics Compass 7/7 (2013):
“However, Siegel  points out that while there is very limited research on the use of creoles in education, the positive benefits are clear and include increased motivation and improvement in the standard variety as well as improvement in overall academic performance. He also notes that none of the studies in this area show any negative effects.
The benefits of beginning schooling in a child’s home language are well documented."
In Aruba, Papiamento, a creole which has its origins in African languages and Portuguese, replaced Dutch as the official language in 2003. Aruba has one of the highest standards of living and lowest unemployment rates in the Caribbean region. In addition to speaking Papiamento, many people there are fluent in Spanish, English and Dutch,
 Here in Jamaica, Hubert Devonish, Professor of Linguistics at UWI, one of the strongest advocates fighting for Jamaican Patois as a language. He carried out a study in a primary school, teaching the children from grades 1-4 in both patois and SJE. The children, especially the boys, performed better than average in this programme. Teaching in patois could also help to close the gap in performance between boys and girls. Although the results of this study are gathering dust on the shelves in the Ministry of Education, Professor Devonish is confident that Jamaican Creole will become one of the official languages of Jamaica. He carried out a survey in which he found that 70% of the population would be in favour of this. However, there are many Jamaicans who have a negative attitude towards patois.
Georgene Growe (r) donated Delroy in the Marog Kingsom to
the Principal of Kendal Primary School. At left,Gretchen Lee,
a volunteer organizer with Great Shape Inc.
Giving children more access to books for them to read for pleasure would be another way of closing the GSAT gaps. It has been shown that children who read regularly (about 40 books a year) for pleasure perform better in all subject areas than children who read very little. The average prep school child is more likely than the average primary school child. to be an avid reader. Only a small percentage of children make frequent visits to their local libraries, and school libraries vary considerably in their usefulness. Class libraries stocked with enough books at the reading levels of all the children in the class would go a far way towards meeting this need, as I explained in my blog post of September 23, 2014 "How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers". "A class Library Movement" would require funding, but more than that would require the will and the understanding of teachers and parents to make it work. Past students could also be asked to  donate books for class libraries.
So that is my wish-list for closing the GSAT Gaps: a desire for education throughout the population; the teaching of children in Jamaican Creole; and Class Libraries for every class in every school. In the future these libraries would have in them books written in Jamaican Creole and illustrated by Jamaicans!

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