Saturday, September 27, 2008

Brains IN Supply; Opportunities Not

I recently completed a research paper that compares the educational reform policies proposed by John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election and came to the conclusion that the educational system in America is in disarray and in need of "systemic changes." Now, as a student studying abroad in America, my conclusion obviously nestled comfortably on a bed of irony. Judging from the rhetoric of both candidates, it would appear as if the educational system here is wholly deficient. Yet, it is these same American universities that continue to attract the brightest minds from around the world (including Belize). 

A recent blog on this website, entitled "Brains in Short Supply," did an excellent job of mirroring the negative rhetoric of McCain and Obama, describing our own system as defunct and one that produces "a bunch of idiots, basically." My opinion on this issue is the same as the above: that such criticism is unnecessary and explicitly unjustified. It is an unequivocal truth that the educational system in Belize is grossly underfunded, suffering from a dearth of resources. For example, many primary schools operate without computer labs, an injustice to our children who find themselves growing up in a technologically dependent world. Similarly, some of our teachers, at all educational levels, are unqualified. But it is important to address this misunderstood notion of "unqualified." A teacher who graduates from Teacher's College, or has a Bachelor's Degree or a Master's Degree does not automatically make him/her 'qualified'; the ability to impart knowledge is not measured in an academic degree. I believe that many of our unqualified teachers are those that see teaching as a profession, an occupation and a means to a monthly paycheck. This translates into a unmotivated classroom environment where teachers fail to invoke the maximum capabilities of their students. With this clarification in mind, I progress. 

The most salient problems of our educational system is not a systemic one, but rather and unsurprisingly, an economic one.  It is undeniable that Belize produces its fair share of intelligence, evidenced by the annual CXC distinctions that are bestowed unto our students and the unrelenting success of those who are fortunate to study abroad in Central America, the Caribbean and the United States. Such students flock to these foreign countries and achieve both academic and extracurricular success far beyond the limits of anemic Belizean resources. How unqualified can our teachers possibly be in light of such success? The problem, unsurprisingly, is an economic one. With more resources, the government would be able to build schools with adequate facilities that can maximize the potential of any child; they would be able to increase the salary for teachers, making an educator's role more attractive to those who might want to teach, but find the meager salary inconducive to supporting a family or a comfortable life; they would be able to offer more scholarships for both low-income and meritorious students the opportunity to study abroad. 

Ask any student who has graduated from high school and I can almost guarantee that, in hindsight, there were one or two teachers who had an enormous impact on their lives for the better. Likewise, ask any teacher and they will tell you that they saw many engineers, doctors, lawyers, and the foundation of Belize's future sitting before them in their classrooms. Hence it would be irresponsible to deduce that most of our teachers lack the insight and ability to instruct and impart knowledge. And it is perhaps even more intolerable to imply that Belizean students are somehow inferior based on a negligent and myopic examination of the root causes of why some children slip through the cracks. Moreover, it undermines the success of the those students who have blossomed in their respective fields and those who would succeed if only given an opportunity to do so; a chance is all they need. 

Our educational system, like many other systems in the world, is in need of dire changes and improvements. Irresponsible criticism, however, makes no progress toward these goals.


Anonymous said...

The phrase throwing good money after bad springs to mind. The budget for 08-09 is $824.8, with education getting the biggest share - 23% or $189 million. Do we see a fair return on that investment in the youth leaving schools today?

Whilst the literacy rate in one of the highest in central america, do we produce children with a rounded education that prepares them for the real world, and importantly for business?

There are many things that need improving, but surely teacher training needs to be top of the list. How can a completely unqualified person be given the responsibility of educating ur young people? And teachers account for 87% of the education budget! Of course there are good teachers, outstanding teachers who have huge influence on children. That's how it should be. But there are not enough. You are right to say qualified teachers do not necessarily make the best teachers in terms of imparting knowledge, but surely you need to be educated in a subject before you even try to impart that knowledge.

Why would raising the pay prevent people from seeing teaching as a monthly pay check? Could you not argue that raising the salary would only encourage people to see it as merely a source of income.

As the Beatles sang, Money can't buy you love, it also can't buy a nation education. It certainly helps, but there is much to be done before then.

Democrates said...

Raising the pay is an tenuous argument indeed, and one that I considered deeply. But I examined the counterfactual this argument: What would happen if you lowered the pay for teachers? Would this then produce those who "want" to teach and don't care about the money? Of course not. Nonetheless, I agree with you in that increasing the pay does not guarantee that teaching will still not be used for a monthly pay check. However, increasing the pay along with the implementing government oversight to ensure that teachers are not only performing well, but are getting the maximum potential out of their students will increase the expectations and responsibilities of a teacher. A simple (and really simple) analogy to this argument would be that CEOs of a company are typically the highest paid. But that doesn't mean everyone flocks to be the CEO unless they can actually perform the stringent duties of a CEO. If they cannot, the company will remove them.

Thanks for an informative and constructive comment!

Rasputin said...

Here is a provocative blunderbuss answer/comment:

Greater Pay, More teachers, smaller classes...

I think too much we valorise careers like doctor, lawyer, that apparently need no justification because lawyer=money, doctor=money, engineer=money as if that is the only reason for education. How many essays are written about the benefit of education whose thesis is simply "so i can get a good (high-paying) job."? In this very post these are the examples given. Where is the simple love of learning? Education should not REQUIRE justification, even if it is prudent to examine its need.

And Belize's literacy is NOT as good as is reported. How do you tell if somebody is literate? By asking them to write their name.

After the Teachers failed the PSE citizens were incredulous. But with all this technology focus and the naive assumption that money = success only leads to destruction. There is little love of learning and rampant anti-intellectualism. Then to top it off the ones that go abroad return or gaze at their former home with condescension and contempt. Too many comparisons with US America here— much of that system is poor. I think a better model is Finland.

The first step is to respect teachers.

Democrates said...

Rasputin, interesting comment. But I had trouble following the basis of your argument in the first paragraph. Nonetheless, I agree with you that education, from a student's perspective, is not all about making money and I don't believe I made that impression in my post (at least I hope not).

The focus on technology, however, is a legitimate claim that I make; it is naive to think that knowledge of such skills will not only be an asset, but a necessity in the future. The love of learning should serve as a foundation for personal success, but an affinity for learning will not result in a "successful" career. If you describe "success" as mere , carefree satisfaction, then my point is clearly off point.

Lastly, I must stress that I attempted to make no normative claims in my post. It was an attempt to balance the ever growing criticisms and pessimistic outlook of the system.

The Voice said...

All these points are valid, but none, in solitude, can account for the state of our educational system. I don't think we're as bad as traidex frequently puts us to be. I've met extraordinary teachers in my educational career, as well as lackluster one. At the end of the day, it boils down to the attitude of the individual person. I know lawyers, doctors, engineers who are completely disallusioned by their field and are just "going through the motion."

True, we all want economic prosperity, because that is what our present culture and society dictates. But we cannot put our own sense of happiness and satisfaction at stake for money.

Money controls us, whether we like it or not. I would like to say that I'd rather be poor and content than rich and unhappy, but that would be an outright lie.

Democrates said...

the voice of reason, well said.

rasputin said...

Consumer society privileges money as the object of abject idolization. These values are inculcated in the Belizean populace perhaps mostly from US cultural hegemony. With the example of US America as the perpetually unreachable standard everyone will continually throw up their hands in the face of unrealisable goals.

I agree with The Voice. It is then a question of not living beyond our means. imitating the lifestyles of persons in mostly dissimilar contexts will inevitably reveal the inadequacies of our forgery. How to cultivate a progressive and indigenous ethic inside an imitative, materialistic society? the method is arguable but the avenues are clear: role models (teachers) and leaders (teachers) who demonstrate, by example, humility, excellence, and honour over desire for material wealth, and unchecked gain.

...and this is why teachers need to be paid competitively, alongside lawyers, doctors and other professionals. It seems to me the only reason certain professions have the gleam of prestige is not because of the necessity of their office but the value of their paycheck. In my ideal world this would be re-calibrated.

If we had a competent government and less disparity in wealth, perhaps we could install a socialist democracy and curb greed with bizarrely high taxes.

The Voice said...

Very well said, Rasputin!

But practically, where will the money come from? The Prime Minister has already admitted that there will be a budget short-fall because of the falling price of crude oil. As the first commenter already stated, the largest share of the budgets goes to education -- mostly paying the salary of teachers.

There is no precedence set yet, in the entire world, for the model you're proposing {short of communist countries}.

I wish I lived in a world of fairness. But all we can do is make slight improvements to our imperfections.