Thursday, June 27, 2013

Quality Education: English, Math, and Science!

The recent 2013 PSE low proficiency scores bombshell has provided the local media in Belize with some hot news items for the country to follow for a few newscasts; it has also provided a few juicy and eye-catching headlines for online and hard copy local newspapers. Teachers are using this attention-grabbing bombshell to try to win the public to their side, and at the same time publicize their unfair working conditions, including salaries. Even the public finally seems interested in demanding a good Education for our children!

Still, no one seems to know what a good education really is. Until we know what it is, and want it, we will not be able to offer, nor receive a good education. Still, we refuse to accept/embrace any change(s) in our Education systems. Perhaps, I should name each article that I post to this Blog, including the Blog itself, Misconceptions of Education in Belize. Other than the constant and heated crossfire of accusations and embarrassments between the public (media) and local politicians consequent to the PSE bombshell, there are no signs whatsoever of any change in Belizeans’ concept, attitude, or concern for high-quality education for our upcoming generation. Most Belizeans continue to think of Education as a “their job” (schools and teachers) issue. In stubbornly refusing to change this misconception of Education, Belize also refuses to be “global”.

From entry level all the way up to corporate executive, most job descriptions throughout the (advanced) world today usually include this requirement in the ‘Position Summary’ or ‘Required Standards’,
  • Must have the willingness and ability to adapt to change, including advances in technology
However, in Belize the Education policymakers (government and church) stubbornly refuse to accept or implement change(s) in how we manage, account for, and fund our public/private Education systems. The public, especially Belize’s business community, must accept/embrace “change” in what ultimately makes a quality Education! Sadly, most Belizeans (government, church, parents, and business community) continue to refuse to let go of their outdated Colonial misconceptions of Education. Wake up people! Education is not a matter of just being able to pass foreign-made standardized tests. It’s way past time to replace O’ levels and A’ levels with our very own Belizean standards!

Starting a few years ago, teachers and administrators are occasionally required to attend one, sometimes two, expensive and professional-sounding “non-Belizean led” (government paid) locally held Education workshops, i.e. during summer vacation. Nonetheless, after each exciting (foreign led) workshop or seminar is completed, participants probably forget most of what was discussed by the time schools reopen and classes resume in August. Participants will return to work in the classrooms when schools reopen, exactly like they did before the workshop. (However, Education workshops led by qualified foreign professionals look impressive on resumes!) If classroom management changes are introduced and discussed at Education Workshops, there are no consistent follow-ups with participants to see if the changes are being implemented in the classroom, and/or if they’re making any positive difference(s) in classroom management. So, when participants (teachers or administrators) have questions or need assistance with making adjustments to what they learned in the workshops, who do they turn to? Each enthusiastic leader (businessman) of the workshops/ seminars always returns to his/her country after each workshop is completed. How do students, who most need the help discussed at these workshops, benefit from these workshops?

Some schools in Belize have websites, which they proudly display online. The Ministry of Education also has one. However, the websites are not interactive, nor are they user friendly – not for students, parents, administrators, teachers, or anyone who is looking to enter the field of Education as a career. They do not provide/offer the public any useful or specific financial information, or step by step instructions on how to complete academic requirements, or how to obtain information. In order to get financial information, parents of students who will start high school classes in August 2013 must attend (have attended) “very important” meetings with school administration, after they find out if their son/daughter is “accepted” at that school. Within 24 to 72 hours after these meeting, parents are (were) required to immediately fork out thousands of dollars for registration, tuition, and many other fees. If mandatory payments are (were) not made right away the student automatically loses his/her place at that school to another student. Why, then, should students (seniors) make any effort to check out a college from a year in advance if they can’t find anything out (financial or otherwise) until days before registration? What purpose does the school/institution website serve?

Actually, now that summer vacations for Primary and Secondary students have already started, the recent Belize PSE low proficiency scores fiasco will blow over, “like wah lee breeze”. When schools reopen and classes resume in August, everything will continue “as per before”. Unfortunately Education just has not been able to make its way to the top of the Agenda of “important” things to consider right now, and probably never will. Food for thought: What will 2014 Belize PSE scores look like? What will Belize be like in 5 or 10 years if the Education Systems remain the same?

According to the last several generations, including my own (high school graduation 1969), getting a quality Education in Belize means going to school everyday to rote learn and memorize several fragmented subjects, including English, Math, Science, Business, Social Studies, and perhaps now even some IT or Computer Science if it’s available.  Pass some O’ Level exams after 4 years, and you’re home free!  But, why is that a quality Education?

Is there one school in Belize (any level from Primary to Tertiary) that has an active program to implement the part of a school vision or mission statement (if it even exists in the policies of the school) that promises “to prepare young students to lead productive and fruitful lives in the community”? Other than the usual boastful political campaign promises made by Education policymakers (government and church) what are they doing to “hands on” prepare and train educators in the important task of preparing young students to lead a democratic, safe, and productive Belize? Did current teachers even undergo training or internships? Getting diplomas from a local university, and going into classrooms to teach without having worked before in an actual classroom is NOT teaching! Government and church leaders of the Education system, you are not preparing young students to lead us in the future only by preparing them to take certain required tests/exams.

Being able to pass several internal and external exams/tests in a few fragmented subjects does NOT meet the definition of having obtained a “solid education”. The past, present, and future definitions of a quality Education are never the same. A well-rounded education (like this Blog) is routinely ignored by  most of the country. “Let students worry over Education – it’s their problem; we already got ours. “

In Belize, “getting a good education” means:
  • Upon leaving Primary School: Score high (passing) in PSE examinations! Low scores will automatically mean no more education for you. If you pass PSE and want to get a Secondary Education, your family must be prepared to pay exorbitant costs of tuition and “other” fees, plus textbooks and uniforms required to allow you to get a high school diploma.
  • Upon leaving Secondary School: Get 4 or more O’ level passes! Without these “totally blown out of proportion passes” your diplomas mean nothing – you will not get a (good) job, or be accepted anywhere else in Belize or the British Commonwealth to pursue a Tertiary education.
  • Upon leaving a University or Sixth Form: Get A’ level passes and important-sounding degrees! Most important: Make sure you know the right people (this never changes) else the degrees also are meaningless.
I may be totally wrong, and Belize has the best Education Systems in the world!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Accountability and Alignment in Education

Following this month’s release of very low proficiency scores for primary school students who took the 2013 PSE examinations, “Education” has suddenly become a heated topic in Belize. Prior to the release of the PSE outcomes, the topic of Education was discussed mostly by educators and perhaps a few concerned parents. Now, it continues to make news, and draws gut-wrenching reactions and strongly-voiced negative opinions (“that’s not how it’s done”) from parents, businessmen, politicians, and almost everyone in Belize. However, what seems ironic (even hypocritical) is that a large portion of our community now suddenly knows what’s wrong with our Education systems. In my May 30, 2013 Blog, only days before the PSE scores bombshell exploded in Belize, I specifically reminded readers that the only way to make sure that our children get an Education that includes genuine “learning” is to eradicate from our vocabulary the phrase “their job” (schools and teachers) and replace it with “our job” (everyone who now is screaming). Common Misconceptions of Education  Nonetheless, as all things political go, we will eventually exhaust our energies in this ongoing crossfire of how best to educate young students. However, after we have pointed fingers, accused, politicized and belittled people whom we choose to blame (other than ourselves) for the PSE low scores, then what do we do?

After this very political storm subsides, this could be a great opportunity for us to try to turn adversity into opportunity, and low achievement into great advancement. However, we must continue to focus on “us” not “them” (teachers and schools) in order to successfully educate our children. Certainly, we should demand accountability from both government and church Education policymakers in Belize, and from everyone else who is involved in the Education process. Let us also ensure that Education policymakers take significant steps to provide students, in every primary school throughout the country, with the tools and resources they need to “learn”. Young Belizean students today, after all, are the ones who will have to compete globally in a few years in this new age of technology. Beyond a doubt, we all have a huge task facing us! Notwithstanding, the ultimate goal behind all of our present and future efforts is not just to help students improve their scores on next year’s PSE national examinations. Our ultimate goal is for Belize to strengthen and solidify Education standards throughout the entire country. Only so will we grow strong as a nation, and survive in this global age. Despite what Aldous Huxley wrote in the past about Belize, we certainly are no longer a quaint “end of the earth”.

Whatever urgent or pressing steps we (government, church, parents and communities) agree to take, they should first benefit young Belizean students, not politicians or Education policymakers. I strongly recommend to Education policymakers that they first listen to our own teachers, school administrators, parents and communities, in conjunction with professional consultants to review changes and improvements to our Education Systems. Regardless, though, of whoever accepts responsibility for strengthening our Education Systems, there are three very important phases of primary school education to urgently address and consider: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. 
  • Curriculum:  What have we been teaching in primary schools? Is it learning-oriented for young  students in Belize? Is it standardized (the same) and used throughout each/every primary school in the entire country of Belize? 
  • Instruction:   How have we been teaching young students? We have so many different teachers.  Are we preparing all primary school teachers in a way that warrants that they do know how to motivate young students to want to learn? Have we been providing teachers with all the resources they need so they can effectively teach everyday in the classroom (that’s not overcrowded)? Thousands of students in primary schools throughout Belize should NOT be trying to learn only in ways that are convenient to schools and teachers. 
  • Assessment:  How, if any at all, have we been measuring what/if the students are learning? Should the annual PSE examinations be the only way to measure what primary school students are learning?  (It's like accepting our own high school diplomas, but insisting that only with external CXC passes can high school graduates get jobs, or enter universities in Belize!)

As I indicated before, a large percent (more than half) of low proficiency scores by students who take standardized tests/exams may be due to multiple reasons. However, where there are few extremely high vs. many low scores, with no overall average or middle score for a majority of students throughout the entire country, this indicates that there are quite a large amount of differences in how all the students are learning – no consistency. Whereas there is no “one size fits all” in the process of Education, it is paramount and critical that all three phases of teaching and learning (curriculum, instruction, and assessment) remain in alignment at all times. In other words, these three essential components of teaching and learning must always remain uniform and aimed in the same direction in each and every one of our primary schools!  Let us use a curriculum that best encourages students to learn.  Let us teach students in the best ways that will enable them to learn.  Let us test students in the best ways possible that will show us that "yes" they are learning.

First, then, let us ensure that in each primary school throughout Belize, every student is being taught and is learning from the same curriculum – one that relies more on a process of critical thinking than on mere rote or memorization. Who will be responsible and accountable for this great need? 

Second, although no two teachers can or ever need to be alike, the goal of every primary school teacher’s daily instruction should always be similar: to help students learn from the same curriculum. Who will be responsible and accountable for making sure that teachers follow this requirement? 

Third, in an effort to adequately measure what/if young primary school students are learning, teachers are encouraged to implement consistency in all measurement tools (tests, exams, quizzes). It is widely known that objective tests, i.e. PSE multiple choice / true or false, are easier/quicker to correct thus even machines or computers can check them. Do these tests, though, accurately measure what/if students are learning? Many times young students know the correct answers, yet often times on tests or exams they mistakenly check the wrong boxes. There are many “other ways” to assess what/whether young students are learning. Surely, checking a box is not the only way to reflect critical thinking, which is what we should be encouraging young students to do as part of the learning process! This applies to any test. 

In addition to the above suggestions and recommendations, we must realize that our teachers are the ones who are on the front lines (in the classroom) every single day with so many different students, each with so many different needs. Each teacher always needs many resources, tools, continuing education and up-to-date training in how best to help students learn. Before anyone point a finger at any one teacher, or accuse him/her of below-standard work in the classroom, please first offer to be accountable and responsible for providing that teacher with the resources and tools that he/she needs to use with students everyday in the classroom.

In conclusion, regardless of the multiple reasons for this year’s low PSE scores, it is critical that both government and church (policymakers of Education in Belize) be accountable for making sure that primary school curriculum, instruction, and assessment throughout the entire country remain in alignment at all times. Also, this critical and important teaching and learning concept must be fully implemented and followed consistently by each member of teachers’ associations and/or other professional organizations that promote Education in Belize. Only so will we be able to consistently promote learning in our children. Most importantly, we each must remember that in order to educate our children: It takes a village! 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What Follows Low Proficiency Scores?

According to the recently released results of the 2013 PSE (Public School Examinations) proficiency exams, more than half of all exiting Primary school students throughout Belize ranked poorly in English and Math. The results that were released to the media show that 53% of the 7359 students who took the exams were assessed as not proficient. The median score in English was 58% while in Math it remained steady at around 54% as the previous year. These low proficiency scores indicate loudly that our students in Primary schools are not learning as they should. Readers who follow my Guidance Counseling columns know that, for years now, I strongly advocate and assert that Education, especially at early levels, needs to be focused on successful “learning”. Low PSE results this year show, without a doubt, that there continues to be large disparities between teaching and learning in our Primary schools.

The results of these standardized exams deem that half of all students who complete Primary school throughout the country this month are “not ready” to enter high school. How valid is this statistic? At the outset, I submit that it does not mean that are our children and schools are deficient. Moreover, no amount of finger-pointing or vocal public accusations against schools/ teachers will even out any disparities between teaching and learning, or improve student performance. Politicization of these results merely focuses on blaming, and adds to the trauma that students and schools may be suffering now. Let us, especially after this unfavorable assessment, respect and uphold the dignity of our schools and teachers, and students. To remove the stigma of failure, policymakers who manage Belize’s Education Systems can focus on designing and providing multiple resources for schools and educators to use to help young students learn to develop their inquiry and reflection skills. Rote learning and memorization of fragmented academic subjects, which we continue to emphasize in Primary schools, are not learning methods. Teamwork, experimentation, and problem-solving are preferable.

A thorough analytical study of the data (PSE scores) and all other evidence might determine why and how so many students repeatedly score lowly on these Proficiency exams. Without a doubt, there are multiple causes – not one! Leadership and vision, instead of finger pointing and blaming, will push educators (schools) to tackle the challenge of minimizing the contributing factors or causes why students are not reaching required proficiency levels.

Studies of proficiency scores in other countries show that low test scores for students, especially in Math, end up costing a country hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. This conclusion translates into a dim prognosis for Belize. To improve this prognosis, policymakers who structure and manage our Education Systems must learn why students are not reaching proficiency levels on PSE, and then act to help teachers improve students’ learning methods and techniques. This large scale lack of basic proficiencies in our young students is more than a political concern – it’s now a nation’s concern because Belize’s imminent future is at stake. So, let us address and minimize the contributing factors to students’ low performance on these proficiency exams. However, the emphasis now should be on taking positive remedial actions. A well-defined and fully working Educational Remediation Plan for educators shifts more accountability to those who are responsible for managing our Education systems. Without a doubt, options abound for improving the proficiency performance of our young students.

Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor, says that very low performance on Proficiency tests should sound a warning. "If we're going to grow at the rate that we hope to grow at, to address the many issues that exist in our society, we need to have a powerful educational system that is producing a highly proficient workforce." (Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?) Belize should heed this warning. We need a strong Education system, at every level, if we are to grow as an Independent nation. Nonetheless, when Primary school students throughout the country fall way behind in Math and English (reading) proficiency, adding burdens of blame and humiliation to teachers or schools will not increase students’ performance on PSE examinations! Moreover, vulnerable judicial and law enforcement systems throughout the country might also be contributing to the low performance of students. Belizeans who live across the length and breadth of our jewel are not in need of scientific studies or statistics to prove that we’ve been painfully experiencing soaring crime rates over the last 5 years! Is there a correlation between students’ low proficiency scores each year and steadily advancing crime rates in Belize today? That’s material for a separate article.

The question that needs to be answered: why? A very popular post on Facebook claims that, “We don’t blame dentists when we don’t brush our teeth properly and get cavities. Why do we blame teachers when students don’t pass tests?” (Quote does not list author, but is attributed to The Diary of a Not so Wimpy Teacher.) I have worked intermittently since 1978, both as a teacher and Guidance Counselor within Belize’s school systems, with many “qualified and dedicated” teachers. The policymakers who structure, plan, and administer the Education System at the Primary School level in Belize cannot attribute students’ low proficiency scores solely to a lack of qualified or committed teachers. We boast of many intelligent young Primary school students throughout the country -- look at this year’s PSE scores for highest scoring students! To be able to fully answer “why”, let us first study and closely examine/analyze the data on all students’ scores. Which students keep scoring low in PSE, and in what subject areas, and from which schools and districts? Let us first study and analyze the scores and all data and evidence “before” we start pointing fingers or hurling accusations.

Angry political finger pointing cannot assess nor improve on this critical situation. Let us first get to the heart/core of why our students score lowly each year in these proficiency exams. Thereafter, policymakers, schools, teachers, parents, and communities can start to join forces to work to improve on students’ learning abilities and performance. It is crucial though, that our Education policymakers find effective and powerful ways to build trusting rapport with Primary schools, teachers and parents throughout the country. Educators and parents, in turn, can learn how to be better equipped to positively influence all students, and help them to improve their learning methods, and prepare them to improve performance in next year’s PSE Exams.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ready or Not, Here We Are!

June is a month for Graduations, annual rites of passage and new beginnings for students in Belize and throughout the world. Young teenagers complete Primary/Elementary School (Standard 6) while older teenagers graduate from Secondary (High School), and adults graduate from Tertiary (Sixth Form or University).  Most of the students who graduate from Primary (Standard 6) typically will head straight into a High School or Technical School, if their families can afford to pay for it, while students who leave or graduate from High School will enter the workforce, the military, or opt to continue studying, or choose a combination of employment and continuing education.  Those students who graduate from a university with an Associate, Baccalaureate, or other degree are now ready to enter the workforce as career professionals.  Nonetheless, each year brings more challenging and complex academic and career options. This month thousands of young Belizeans who are graduating, from Primary up through University level, face increasingly complex and pivotal crossroads and new phases in their lives.  How ready, though, are they to make crucial decisions and take on the world?  If they are ready, are there places for each of them in today’s world?

Speaking from actual experience, I can verify that when Sixth Form (Associate Degree level) was the highest level of academic Education available in Belize, students who graduated from Sixth Form had limited career choices: seek immediate employment and enter the workforce, or go abroad to continue studying or working, or both.  I thank my Sixth Form English teacher (Peace Corp) for her guidance and encouragement, and my family for providing the support that enabled me to go abroad to study at the University of Wisconsin.

After “Pomp and Circumstance” is played several times this month in Belize, and graduates don their caps and gowns, what choices do they face?  There are now several high schools, sixth forms and universities throughout the country that offer high levels of academic and vocational training. During my lifetime, and before that, students who completed Primary School on San Pedro, and in several Districts, had to travel to Belize City to attend a High School!  Nonetheless, the various options facing graduates today are complex.  Where does a Primary School graduate turn if his/her family cannot afford to pay the thousands of dollars just to register in a high school?  Who will pay the remaining thousands of dollars in tuitions and books for 4 more years?  What if a graduate is not accepted into his/her school of choice to continue studying?  What if he/she is accepted but cannot afford the tuition and many other costs of that education?  What about those graduates who cannot find or obtain part-time employment?  Without part-time jobs many students cannot afford more schooling; it is just so expensive.  What does a student do after graduating from school, any level, if he/she still is not sure what “next step” to take, or does not feel prepared?  Are there “roads frequently travelled” that graduates might clearly see and follow?  Many students who are graduating with degrees, know exactly what they want to do, and are fully academically qualified; but, they will not be able to find employment in their field, or perhaps in any field whatsoever. Youth of Belize, are you ready to face the world as it is now?  Do you know where/how you now fit in your communities? 

This week’s column poses many questions, but provides few answers.  Actually, there is but one all encompassing question to direct to each graduate: Why wait until after you graduate school to confront the “now what do I do” questions?  My advice: Don’t wait!  Students, no matter at what level you are completing (or entering) school, never wait until after you graduate to explore your academic or career options!  My previous columns address serious issues that arise during a student’s school career; those issues affect not only students, educators, and parents, but their entire communities.  The most crucial issue for each student, though, arises at graduation: Now, what do I do?

In school, students usually view graduation as an event “way down the road”.  Nevertheless, as a guidance counselor, I encourage students, Secondary or Tertiary, to always have and to constantly keep updating their individual short-term and long-term academic and career goals and options.  I urge students who plan to continue studying after they graduate to thoroughly investigate, from a year in advance, all the available information about the school(s) where they want to continue studying: registration/entrance requirements, minimum required grades, tuition, fees/costs, books, places to live etc.  Students who plan to graduate from High School, or other level, and immediately enter the workforce should not wait until after graduation to start looking for employment.  Students who plan to enter the workforce after graduation should be thoroughly checking out the job market a full term/semester (or more) before they graduate!  Their resumes and cover letters of interest to companies should be completed, and mailed, “before” they walk on stage with cap and gown.

Belize has now fully entered the Age of Technology. See: Technology to the Rescue!  Not everyone is at an advanced technology level; nevertheless, each student who graduates this month from a high school, or higher level, should be fully trained to understand and use computers.  It is no secret that technology is now the primary driver of growth and innovation in most, if not all, major industries in Belize. Without a doubt, Tourism tops that list!  A major industry that has also developed greatly in Belize, from since when I graduated from high school, is the Media.  In the mid 1960’s the Media in Belize consisted of one radio station that signed off the air at 10:00 p.m. nightly, and three hardcopy newspapers that circulated weekly. There are now various television and radio stations throughout Belize, available online 24/7 (always), many hardcopy and online newspapers (headquartered all over the country), dozens of hospitality and resort websites, interactive websites and Blogs for public and private industries, commercial, political, personal and many other “Portals” to Belize.  Each is accessible from anywhere in the world at the touch of a computer keyboard button or screen.  Graduates: you are the ones who must continue to create, develop and improve all of our technology backed industries. Are you prepared and ready?  Keep believing in yourselves, and have confidence in what you do!  Do not be afraid to break old barriers!  I salute your dogged determination, as I remind you that you are no longer “the world tomorrow”.  Oh no -- as of your graduation this June you are “the world today”!

Issues concerning students’ needs, bullying, aggressive behavior, coping, setting short-term and long-term goals, and technology were some of many issues previously addressed in this column.  After graduation this June, are you ready, graduates, to confront these issues “head on” everyday in the workplace or at other institutions of learning? Please remember that bullying does not surface its ugly head only in schools.  In the workplace all employees have to learn to adapt, adjust, and cope with much more than students do in school.  Moreover, the further up the Education scale a student now studies (Tertiary) guidance and counseling is no longer what students may have become used to receiving.  No one, at an advanced level of studies, will be there to hold your hand and walk you through your schedule of classes, or keep reminding you to attend classes, and complete homework and/or projects.  A high level of student independence is expected in education systems post high school.  Nevertheless, always feel free to request assistance when you need it.

So, after only a few brief paragraphs to give you a peek into what awaits you after graduation, are you graduates ready to take on the world after June 2013?  Are you each ready to build and improve your financial education?  Do you even have one?  Graduates, as you each look back on school and on what you can remember, cherish what you consider as memorable.   (For some of you, perhaps one phrase will describe your elation: “Thank heavens I’m out of there!”)  But, regardless of how you may feel about your past school days, you each must now face: “Now what do I do?” Perhaps you did not prepare as much as you could/should have, while you were in school; but it’s never too late to make plans and take action!  You each are just now starting a “new beginning”.  After you hear the beautiful speeches given at graduation ceremonies, remember that no matter what your goals and plans for the future may be, you must take that “first step” in order to complete the next thousand miles!   (A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.)  Most importantly, remember that whether you enter the workforce, the military, keep studying, or whatever you may decide to do, you are each taking with you the very best wishes of your teachers and schools, your families, friends and communities.  May your Commencement Exercises commence a productive new life for each of you and for our beautiful jewel, Belize!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Graduation Preview

Check in on June 12, 2013 for a full length and complete post/article on Graduation in Belize this month, and what it means.  Topics to be addressed include:

"June is a month for Graduations, annual rites of passage and new beginnings for students in Belize and throughout the world."

"After “Pomp and Circumstance” is played several times this month in Belize, and graduates don their caps and gowns, what choices do they face?"

"Graduates: you are the ones who must continue to create, develop and improve all our technology backed industries in Belize.  Are you prepared and ready?"

"Graduates, are you ready to take on the world after June 2013?"


Thank you for your comments.  Feel free to express opinions, or ask for more information on any Education topic that you may find important, or that you feel needs to be addressed today.   Your opinions are welcomed!

Gustavo A. Ramirez
Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant