Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Education in Belize: New Models of Success

The policymakers of Education in Belize consist of Government and Church leaders; and they are responsible for schooling/educating all students in Primary and Secondary schools.  Yet, despite the fact that Belize is now an Independent nation in the 21st Century, our Education policymakers continue to confuse students even more than they already may be confused, by insisting that students focus on old Colonial versions of success, rather than on the students’  21st Century visions of success.  Examples:  Upon completing high school students must pass Colonial Era based O’ level exams.  Originally, these exams were British GCE or General Certificate of Education that were used from back in the early 1950’s (long before Belize was Independent); but now the O’ level exams are administered by CXC, or Caribbean Examination Council.  Students who earn high school diplomas without passing O’ level CXC passes are not admitted into institutions of higher learning (university), nor do they qualify for good-paying jobs.  In examinations, students try to think and write exactly how they were taught in class, for fear of failing tests/exams.  In other words, students are encouraged to memorize answers, instead of using critical thinking skills that are very much required today. 

Challenges and Opportunities in the Belize Education Sector is a May 2013 report (43 pages) recently published by the Inter-American Development Bank; it “… discusses the current situation of the Belizean education sector and its progress over the last 10 years, its relative performance compared with other countries in the region, and the policies currently being implemented by the education sector in Belize.” The report is available at no cost online and has been reported widely throughout the local Belize media.  According to the report places “Belize at the bottom of the academic ladder in Latin America and Caribbean”.  

As I have been insisting for years now to deaf ears in Belize, Education policymakers continue to insist on setting Colonial standards in schools, not standards that are in line with 21st Century ways of life in Belize.  Current Primary and Secondary school standards have hardly changed since Colonial Days of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Worse, many parents add more confusion to their already stressed out teenage sons and daughters by pressuring them to earn high grades at school each term/semester.  Many parents will view their children as successful only if they bring home grades in the 90’s or high 80’s.  Sadly, this left-over Colonial attitude from parents and from many educators only adds to young people’s already stressed-out and burnt-out lives at school.  This vision of success (high grades only) leads to high drop-out rates today among young males.  On top of it all, this unwanted pressure comes at the worst possible time – when teenagers are at the especially awkward transition period between childhood and adulthood.  We will make it worse for students when “our” constant demand for success is what we adults stress it should be, not what “their” vision of success may be.

I highly encourage policymakers of schools in Belize (government and church) to take a close look at successful non-British and non-Caribbean school systems.  It would certainly behoove those who are in charge of managing our Education system in Belize to look beyond their noses, i.e. at Finland’s model of Education and successful school system.  It is the total opposite of Belize’s system of Education.  Yet, the World Economic Forum ranks Finland as third best in the world for Education competitiveness!  The strength of Finland’s schooling systems is unmatched.  Their teachers are extremely well-qualified and keep taking continuing education and self-development courses all the time.  Unlike in Belize, or other parts of the world, in Finland teachers are well-paid and greatly respected -- almost revered.  Unlike in most parts of the world, in Finland students don’t start school until they are 7 years old, and teachers teach a maximum of 4 classes daily, and they assign no more than 30 minutes homework each night.  Students do not take exams until they are 18 years old.  Yet, when it comes to educational proficiency and educational performance, Finland’s school systems produce students who demonstrate the highest literary proficiency rates in the world.  Moreover, more than half of all their high school level students go on to a university or institution of higher learning.  Why such a high success rate there, despite no testing, nor copying other countries’ systems of Education, nor constant monitoring within their schools?  What motivates students in schools throughout Finland to be successful and high-achievers in all areas of Education?  I wonder what Belize’s Church leaders, Education Department and Ministry of Education would say about Finland’s school systems…  Or, perhaps the learned and highly respected University of Belize would like to chime in with their opinions…

There are many and varying definitions of success in Education.  Is success for students the ability to memorize and score well in (external) examinations?  Is success being able to critically think for oneself instead of only mirroring (memorizing) what is written in textbooks and taught in the classroom?  Education policymakers in Belize, past and present, still have not indicated which is more important: having good memorization skills to pass examinations, or being able to think critically for oneself -- inside and outside the box.  

Currently, Belize continues to face many drawbacks, including extremely high rates of poverty, unemployment, and violent crimes.  Recently, 2013 PSE proficiency scores revealed that more than 50% of our young students, after completing Primary school, are trailing far behind (lagging/failing) where they should be, especially in Reading and Math, as compared to the rest of the world.  Despite all our current drawbacks, what efforts (other than allocating huge budgets for those for those who are “in charge of managing Education”) are we making to ensure that we are genuinely preparing our children for success in life – for “their” success, not ours?  Education policymakers, educators, and parents in Belize need to stop being so preoccupied with their very short visions of success for our children.  Instead, let us all be vigilant and careful of the constant pressure we impose on our children everyday through our remarks about what we think their progress should be at school.  Moreover, we should never use them as pawns to provide status and meaning in our own lives.  Parents should never gloat to friends and relatives over their children’s high grades each term/semester in order to gain acceptable/enviable social status in the community. 

Celebrating success is good; however, we weigh down our children with our constant demands for what we consider as success at school: high grades.  Our constant insistence on their getting high grades stresses them out, and adds more anxiety and depression to their already heavy loads at school.  Also, it lowers their self-esteem (how they see themselves) and makes them feel that we have no idea whatsoever of what their real needs and wants may be.  So instead, I encourage all parents and educators to celebrate more often with our children what “they” consider as success, even if for some it’s scraping by, or just barely passing a class each term/semester.  Each time we celebrate with them, “their success”, we encourage them to be resilient and independent at school and in life. 

So, what is the model of success for a young student today?  Is it scoring high grades (90’s and upper 80’s) in written examinations at school?  Is it passing CXC examinations?  No, it should not be based on passing examinations or getting good grades.  Nevertheless, we should encourage students (our sons and daughters) to aim high and not be satisfied to just scrape by with mediocre work at school.  But, if they work hard yet only achieve a barely-passing grade, or graduate from high school without passing any CXC examination, then that is their success which we should celebrate.  I encourage Belize’s Education policymakers, educators, parents, and the entire community to make every effort to constantly feed our young students’ internal motivational engines.  Spur them to “their” great success.  Let’s keep shining a light on students’ success, and in doing so make each success lasting and more impressionable.   Let us stop focusing only on Colonial Era standards of success, and focus rather on Belizean standards of success, and on each student’s success!

NOTE:   Our heartfelt congratulations go to staff and students in Fireburn Village in the Corozal District of Northern Belize!  We shine the light on your success during this past school year!  We wish you continued success throughout the new school year, starting in August.  Special thanks also to Grid Earth Project for providing the solar lights for all children in Fireburn Village to be able to read.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Belize: A Nation at Risk

My favorite and most often used Chinese proverb reminds us simply that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Thirty years ago the Education Department of the United States of America published a report, “A Nation at Risk”, to urge an overhaul of how/what their young people were taught in schools. Why? Data gathered over many years showed that young students in that country were “behind” where they should be in Education. The Report was a “wake-up call” for the country. As of today, educators in that country are still working to keep the spark alive of that school reform movement. It has been more than 30 years since Belize achieved its Independence. What has Belize (Education Department) done to make its schools its own – instead of keeping the exact system of Education used under Colonial Masters before 1981?

Recently published scores of 2013 PSE proficiency examinations for Belize Primary school students show that more than 50% of the students are lagging way behind (failing) in English/ Reading and Math. Moreover, at this point in time Belize has such a high rate of unemployment, and so many of our people are poor, it’s a given that a large part of our young people are NOT adept at using 21st Century technology. That is because only the wealthy (at least the working class) could possibly afford to purchase computers, and pay for expensive internet hook-ups! So, what are we Belizeans going to do after this dire warning (that literary wise our young people are so far behind where they should be) that has just exploded in our faces? Most Primary and Secondary school students in Belize are now on summer vacation. This is a good time for Belizean Education policymakers (government and church), school administrators, teachers and parents throughout the entire country, to join together and take those first few steps on the long, difficult, and “necessary” journey to reinvent, reform, and strengthen schools in Belize.

Previous studies carried out in Belize show that the high dropout rate of students, especially males, in Belize is connected to the extremely high crime rate throughout the country. Are our young male students “bored” at school everyday? Why? Are our schools today even adequately staffed and funded to serve our youth and the nation? Why does government give cash vouchers to students who are entering high school, but the vouchers are not good for another six months -- until December? Should we be referring to our country as a “jewel” when we cannot even educate our children to reach acceptable literary standards?

I have pointed out in several of my previous articles that, based on numerous studies done throughout the developed world, a country’s economy suffers greatly when Primary and Secondary schools do not step up to the plate, and help young students to move up when they are lagging way behind their international rivals. But, regardless if anyone agrees with anything that I write, do those who are in control of managing our schools and Education Systems in Belize even care about our future? How are they showing it? I dare the government (ruling political party) and churches in Belize to take those first important steps to signal to our people, and to the world, that schools in Belize today can and will, effectively respond to the rapidly changing world around us today, and will successfully educate young Belizeans to live and “fit” in this new Century in Belize!

First of all, though, government and church policymakers of our Education Systems in Belize must take their heads from deep in the sands, and stop insisting on remaining embedded in antiquated Colonial Systems of Education. Belize is now an Independent country, with needs of her own, no longer a British colonial territory. Stop focusing on the British or Commonwealth systems of Education, and create a Belizean system of Education! Policymakers, administrators, teachers, and parents: you are the leaders of our children. Stop following someone else’s Systems of Education, and start creating your very own visions of where Belize needs to be. Then, translate those visions into solid Education Reform that will aim to meet Belize’s goals, not the goals of another country. Change and recharge yourselves to make teaching/educating our young people today successful and less frustrating because it’s not meeting another country’s standards. Overhaul and replace your old Colonial habits with new ones and create “working” classrooms in schools, where students are encouraged to develop “critical thinking skills” instead of trying to learn by rote memorization to score well in external examinations.


Step 1.)            To create the best Education Systems in Belize that will prepare our young people for today and tomorrow we must want it first! Even that, though, is not enough to start our journey to create, update and c o n t i n u o u s l y improve schools in this country. We must replace the all-encompassing indifference on the part of most parents and those who are “in charge” of managing and developing schools today. We simply cannot “cave in” to those who keep screaming that we must run schools the same way as “when they were there”. Additionally, unlike how it was done in the past, any new vision for schools in Belize cannot be kept buried under some powerful leader’s “Classified” documents! Any new vision for our schools needs to be SHARED with the entire country, especially with our teachers, students, parents, and business communities!

Step 2.)           To make Education in Belize successful, bring teachers’ salaries up to 21st Century standards of living! Students are not the only ones who need motivation, encouragement, and incentive to “learn” and make the education process successful; so do teachers! A “livable” salary for teachers (financial stability) will provide incentives for them to want to grow and develop in their profession. Let’s not “let sleeping dogs lie” in the field of Education and continue to hire whoever is willing to teach in our schools at unrealistic salaries. We get what we pay for! No matter what level a school, Primary or Secondary, it is of paramount importance that our school leaders develop a faculty culture that is always focused on professional growth and development. That, however, will never be easy as long as the complaining and bickering by overworked and underpaid teachers drown out the voices of those devoted to learning, sharing and supporting each other.”

Step 3.)           Unlike how Primary and Secondary schools were managed in the Colonial days past, today we must let each teacher know and feel everyday all day, that he/she counts! Our teachers, not their employers, are the ones who are ultimately responsible for helping students “to learn”. Principals, Headmasters, Managers: let teachers know and feel that you regard them as “significant” to your school! Financial recompense (salary) alone does not provide the “motivation/impetus” to encourage a teacher to want to keep improving constantly -- feeling “needed” and appreciated does!

Step 4.)           Parents: make every effort to “keep up” with your children today! You may not be able to stop them from being exposed to very realistic but violent video games, or from watching adult TV, or from participating in 24/7 interactive websites where the entire world (cyberspace) participates, or from sending and receiving emails – good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. However, your “I don’t know how to work a computer!” is no excuse! Whether you are computer literate or not, you have great influence on your children -- use it! Listen to them, answer their questions, try to guide them, and by all means LEARN from them. (Whenever I am “stuck” on the computer, I rely on my teenage son to “come to the rescue”. In today’s world a 60 year old can learn so very much from teenagers!) Participate in their education! Screaming at them that you work your # off to be able to pay for their education is not participation. Being one of the 400 (out of 450) parents who do not bother to show up to school to see your child being honored publicly for good grades, sports participation, or other school activity is not participation. Merely providing money for your son’s/daughter’s education (school fees, books, uniforms etc.) is not participation. If your parents did not participate in your education that does not mean that, in turn, you can do the same today with your child. This is 2013! Spending money on your children without providing emotional support is worthless and meaningless.

Step 5.)           School Managers (government and church) and Boards of Directors: do you know what Belizean business communities and leaders want/need our schools to produce? Find out!. What literacy skills do employers today need in order to make our Belizean business communities grow and develop on a world competitive basis? No school should assume that what they produce is good enough for today’s business operations or offices. We now have such a wide variety of business industries in Belize. We are now preparing to have world-class medical centers, hospitals, and shopping centers. Educators should not work hard to produce high-performing students to make schools “look good”; today our ultimate goal is to educate young people so they can “fit” successfully into our communities, and help them become productive.

Step 6.)          School Principals and Headmasters: “prioritize” things that need to be addressed at school every day. Things that may seem insignificant to you may be of vital importance to our students today. If we keep insisting on managing schools the way it was done 25 or 50 years ago, we are inviting trouble and failure. “Your” important meetings and deadlines do not always come first. Many of our (male) students today cannot read at their class level, or are “lost” in gangs and drug use/abuse, or have many “negative” close/family influences in their lives, and live in abject poverty and desperation. Addressing these issues first is far more important than attending bureaucratic meetings or trying to get the most and highest CXC passes for your school.

Finally, I encourage all Belizean adults, especially parents and educators, to keep modeling positive behaviors, especially “patience”, everyday to send powerful and positive messages to our young people today. Belize’s high crime/murder/gang involvement rate today is tied to the fact that our youth have become totally engulfed and swallowed up in the FAST rate at which everything moves today -- thanks to technology. So many young people today simply do not or cannot comprehend the need for, importance, and beauty of “patience”. Let us show them “how” patience works! A direct quote from a previous commentary to one of my early articles: “The best way to raise upstanding citizens is to lead by example - show the students love, hope, compassion, respect, honesty, diligence and ambition (to name only a few of lessons.” Yes, we want well-behaved, motivated, and high performing young Belizeans in schools today; more important though, we want “happy” Belizean students.