State of Education Address
By Minister Dr. Rhoda Arrindell,
Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs.
St. Martin, August 17, 2011.
Fellow St. Martiners,
Residents of our beloved island.
Less than a year ago - 10 months and 7 days to be exact - I took office as your Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs. At the time, the new school year was just about a couple of months old. The budget had not even been passed yet by Parliament, and the challenges of implementing the Compulsory Education Law looked insurmountable.
We are now at the beginning of a new school year. And before I continue, let me welcome all of you back from a well-deserved vacation, especially the education community and all the other stakeholders in this difficult process of preparing our youth for the promise of the future, and ensuring that the realities of the present are adequately met. I hope you have come back refreshed, re-energized, reinvigorated, and ready and rearing to go, so that we can continue to work together to make this new school year the best ever.
It is an honor and a privilege to address you directly and present to you the state of education on our beloved St. Martin: where we are today as policy makers, educators and as a forward-looking community; where we are heading as we build this nation together, one student at a time, and above all, how our students are doing in this system we have been grappling with and trying to improve for the sake of our future generations.
A year ago, it was not uncommon to hear comments that said our education system was in shambles. I did not agree with that assessment then and I still do not now. It is unfair to all those involved in education to make sweeping remarks like that which are not backed by any objective facts. It is easy to generalize based on how we feel about something, however, as educators, we are bound to make statements that can be supported by empirical data. We are not very strong in data collection across the board. It is an area we are working to improve, particularly in education, so that we can better analyze and determine what works and what doesn't work in our system.
Having said that, I am sure no one would deny that we operate a rather complex system, which tends to stream our children at too early an age, and which offers a potpourri of letters that is difficult to understand, especially at the secondary level: HAVO, VWO, SBO, and all the remaining "Os" and the "TKL," "PKL" and all the other "L's". We are working towards simplifying the system so that our children will receive a well-rounded, quality education, sit one school leaving examination at the end of primary school that would allow them to be admitted into secondary school, and have basically one model of secondary education which will offer a curriculum that is relevant and flexible enough for the students to pursue higher education or enter the job market with a set of useful skills.
Our mission as educators is to prepare our students for success in the very competitive world they will have to work in. That is why our Mission Statement in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, is "to deliver service to the population of St. Martin in all areas under our jurisdiction by providing and ensuring the implementation of effective and efficient systems which promote and secure equal opportunities and access to quality education, recreation, social, cultural and physical development for all the people of St. Martin."
Quality here is synonymous to excellence. And what is excellence if it is not positive concentration and good focus at all times on your work. This requires good work ethics. For students, this means doing your homework and turning it in on time; not putting off what you have to do today for tomorrow, asking pertinent questions when you do not understand something, completing assignments and other tasks promptly and above all, listening to your teacher. It is this positive attitude that builds your confidence and your character as well. We need to emphasize achieving excellence because in the St. Martin we are building together there can be no room for mediocrity.
Permit me to seize this opportunity to honor all those students who worked very hard in the last school year to achieve excellence. I pay special tribute to those students who put in the effort to reach the top of their class; to make their parents, families, schools and the entire community of St. Martin proud of their performance. It is my firm belief that every student can achieve the highest levels given the proper motivation.
Of course, we are also mindful of the fact that the results of some external exams, particularly the HAVO, MAVO and VWO exams, last year, fell short of our expectations. The Ministry is analyzing these and other results with a view to determining the reasons why our students did not fare as well as they could have and to offer possible ways of improving their performance in future.
I want to commend the efforts of all those teachers whose hard work, dedication, and commitment to the education of our children has resulted in the success of so many of our students. They continue to make the teaching profession the noble calling it is meant to be, even in times when teachers seem to be losing their place of honor in society. I know and I hear about teachers who go the extra mile to ensure that students in their care perform to the best of their talents.
These are teachers who do not wait on the school board, or government to provide basic needs for their classrooms, but who would spend their time and money to ensure that students have the required learning materials. These are teachers who have cut short their holidays to help clean up, set up and in some cases even paint classrooms in readiness for the new school year. One such educator is Ms. Suwana Musticat of the Geneveve de Weever School, who for the last days, including yesterday her birthday, was in her school cleaning and making sure all was in place for school to start this morning. I salute all such teachers, school administrators, support staff, and yes, parents, too, who have demonstrated that they understand that it takes the whole village to educate the child. It is my intention to institute during this new academic year that we have just started, a reward system for such educators, in the form of an annual "Education Medal of Honor".
Teachers, as I have said before, must be seen as nation-builders and must be treated as such. We are thankful for all those teachers we bring in from abroad to fill in the many vacancies we have annually in the field, however, it is a priority of my Ministry to progressively reverse this trend, and develop our own corps of teachers. We will work even closer this year with the University of St. Martin to ensure that its Teacher Education Programme meets world standards, and can turn out an adequate number of qualified teachers on an annual basis. Although it might be discouraging that only five students applied to enter the TEP at USM this year, I am very optimistic that with the right incentives, and the collaborative efforts of the management of USM and my Ministry, many more students can be attracted to the profession. In particular, the recruitment of male teachers will receive special attention because we need more male teachers in front of our classrooms.
In the meantime, one of the ideas we are working on right now is to see how we can bring back some of our veteran teachers who are now in retirement, but are still very healthy and willing to serve. In this modern age when today's 60 is yesterday's 40, it is a regretful waste of very scarce human resource to condemn such teachers to walking the dog, when they could still do what they have done best all their lives: teach.
The success of every student depends on the quality of teacher we have in the classroom. In other words, if we want to raise the achievement level of our students, we must improve the quality of teachers we employ to teach them. This is why it is imperative that we give all the support necessary to help improve teaching and learning. We must establish standards and best practices for teachers and schools by identifying our most effective teachers and school managers and learn from their expertise.
This requires that we establish an evaluation system, not only for teachers, but for schools as well, that will stress efficiency and effectiveness, using student performance as a key indicator, but not as the only measurement. This process is ongoing, with the all-important input of the Windward Islands Teachers Union, WITU, whose president and board I must commend for their cooperation in this and other matters during the past year.
My Ministry will continue to facilitate a collaborative process with the WITU, school boards, and managers, as well as other stakeholders, to design model teacher and school manager evaluation tools. And I am confident that we can develop a method of evaluation for teachers and principals that is just and fair which can receive the support of the entire education community. Schools can consequently put such evaluation systems to appropriate use in decision-making in areas such as promotion, compensation, and professional development. It would also help guarantee the equitable distribution of effective teachers and school managers in schools which have critical staffing problems, and in subjects and specialty areas for which effective teachers are hard to come by.
I do not want to place all the burden of educating our children on the shoulders of teachers alone: parental involvement in the educational process is just as vital to the success of our students.
Parents can no longer view school as day care centers and teachers as glorified baby-sitters for their children. It is not enough for parents to show up at school, if they do, only when they are called to pick up their children's report cards, etc. It is totally unacceptable for some parents to come to school to tell off a teacher or pick up a fight because a teacher had disciplined their children. Parental involvement in the education of the child starts from home. As a parent, your duty is not over when you drop off your child at school in the morning, or pick them up in the afternoon.
From their physical appearance and health to their academic progress, including supervising their homework and school projects, the parent who wants his or her child to succeed, must be constantly involved in all the school activities the child has to perform. This includes sports and cultural events where, in many cases, parents are visibly absent. I am studying the possibility of enlisting the cooperation of businesses to give time off for parents to attend such activities when these fall during working hours.
Besides, the time each parent spends helping their child with school work, or attending activities in which their child is involved, is real quality time which fosters bonding between parent and child and solidifies the love between both in a tangible way. It is time that is more valuable than all the toys and gadgets we can buy as gifts for the children. I, therefore, urge parents to resolve in this new school year to make a serious effort to be involved more in their children's education. Strengthening the Parents-Teachers' Associations (PTAs) is a good starting point for this.
Collaboration between the home and the school is a vital component in our efforts to improve the quality of our education. The school is not just a physical facility; it is an environment where learning takes place. We continue to enjoy a good working relationship with the various school boards who manage the schools. Government subsidized these school boards to the tune of over 75 million guilders in 2011, an increase of 23% over the preceding year. This amount is more than 73% of the total annual budget of the Ministry! However, school boards are private foundations, which operate independently of government. We will hold the school boards accountable for the tax-payers' money they receive each year.
Furthermore, I am of the opinion that school boards have a responsibility to reduce teacher and student absenteeism, which obviously contributes to lower performance and even an increase in the drop-out rates.
But we cannot demand high standards from all the other stakeholders in education without demanding the same of ourselves as Ministry of Education. The role of government, in this case, the role of the Ministry of Education, is also very critical in delivering the quality of education we all aspire to and expect. As a new Ministry, we have had to take on additional responsibilities in areas such as Inspection, Examinations and Student Support Services, which we did not have to handle before October 10, 2010. The first two divisions are up and running and the third – Student Support Services - will be operational this school year.
However, to succeed as a Ministry of Education, we do not only have to provide leadership and a clear and unambiguous vision of where we want to take education, but most importantly, we have to nurture a close and dynamic relationship with the whole community so that educators can dedicate their precious time to the core business of schools, which is learning.
For me, these are not just fancy words, it is an axiomatic principle which guides my decisions. I see the role of government in education not only as a regulatory and monitoring agency, but also as one of setting standards that meet international norms, providing much needed assistance to the educational community where needed, leveraging best practices and keeping track of results in such a manner that would facilitate constant and continuous improvements at all levels.
We have begun the process of reviewing our educational laws to bring them in sync with our present-day realities. This is a time consuming process that will overlap several school years, but it is important to stress that a new National Education Plan is already in the making. When completed, it will be put before the people for discussion, while efforts are being intensified to re-write curricula at the various levels so that our children would be able to know, for example, about the founding fathers of modern day St. Martin such as Dr. Claude Wathey, Clem Labega, Lionel Bernard Scot, (or L.B. Scot), Milton Peters, Jose Lake Sr., Wallace Peterson and others.
If you ask a 6th grader today who these pioneers are, don't be surprised if all they do is scratch their heads and look into empty space. But we cannot blame them if our curriculum does not teach them about the contributions these men and women made to transform St. Martin into what it is today.
It is also an irony that, for example, works by St. Martin poets and authors such as Lasana Sekou and Drisana Deborah Jack are being studied and taught at universities abroad, while our own students are not required to read them in our schools. We will ensure that there is a compulsory reading list of books by St. Martiners and about St. Martin, which our students will be tested on in national exams.
A new curriculum is, without doubt, critical to our efforts at nation-building. This new curriculum will include subjects such as Music, Drama, Fine Arts, and Sports and would most likely require that we expand our current school hours. We are already in advanced discussions with the Ujimaa Foundation about collaborating in an experimental charter school, which will incorporate many of these ideas before they become the norm in the rest of our school system.
As for Compulsory Education, it is the law and no longer a matter of choice. We are now in the third phase of its implementation which covers children from 9 to 12 years old. We started 2011 with a district by district, town-hall style campaign to explain details of the law. Let me make it abundantly clear that it is against the law for children up to this age group to be out of school without proper permission. In other words, children who are 4 to 12 years' old may not be helping to pack groceries in supermarkets when they should be in school, or found loitering in the neighborhoods while school is in session. Their parents and guardians will be held legally liable in these instances. A Truancy Officer has been appointed who will handle such cases.
With regards to physical infrastructure, the construction of the Hillside Christian school at Cay Hill is nearing completion. This will help with the decongestion of the St. Peters school district. There is a new vocational school (SBO) coming also in Cay Hill, while at Belvedere, two new public schools will be built, a primary and a secondary school. In addition, the expansion and upgrading of the Geneveve de Weever school is also close to finishing. All these will contribute to alleviating the shortage of classroom space and lessen the overcrowding in some of our schools.
We have also established five (5) community schools in a pilot program spearheaded by DERPI, the division of projects and innovations of my Ministry, with financing provided by USONA, the Dutch funding agency.
Now let me turn to tertiary education. A tertiary education law is in its final review stages. This law will regulate tertiary education on the island and set standards for institutions of higher learning. Of course, the University of St. Martin continues to occupy pride of place as the island's premier institution of higher education. It is in our best interest to make sure that USM meets international standards and offers courses relevant to the development of the island.
At present, government subsidy to USM accounts for about 60 (70?) per cent of its annual budget. This year, that subsidy surpassed the 10 million guilder mark, an increase of more than 70% over 2010. For all this infusion of public funds, USM remains an institution run by a private foundation. My Ministry and the Board and Management of the university are in constant discussions on how to improve our cooperation and turn USM into a viable, sustainable center of higher learning with quality programs and faculty that would attract students and lecturers from all over the region and the world.
However, USM is not the only university on St. Martin; we also have the American University of the Caribbean, (AUC), an off-shore medical school which was acquired recently by the well-known DeVry Institute for a whopping $235 million. DeVry has indicated that it would be investing another $20 million to upgrade the facilities at AUC. No doubt, this is a welcome development and I look forward to a very close cooperation with the institution for the benefit of tertiary education on St. Martin. DeVry has already asked my Ministry to draw up a "hit list" or priority list of what we would like to see it contribute to the island. That list will be submitted shortly.
The arrival of DeVry is in line with the policy of this government to encourage our students to study in the region. To this end, I have signed MOUs with Johnson & Wales University and Monroe College, which will facilitate direct cooperation with USM and expand the options of our students seeking higher education within the region. Studying in the region is usually cheaper, closer to home, and less culturally traumatic, while all evidence points to the fact that the majority of our students who study in this region, including North America, finish within an average of 4 years and return home at the end of their studies. The reverse seems to be true for our students who go to The Netherlands. They spend on the average some six to seven years to finish equivalent studies, and many remain there rather than return to the island. This was a topic of discussion with Dutch authorities during my recent visit there.
As you perhaps already know, I accompanied the group of St. Martin students who are recipients of government's study financing. All reports from S4 indicate that they are settling down well. I impressed on them, both here and on arrival in The Netherlands, the need for them to focus on their studies and finish in the allotted time and return home to help build St. Martin. As a matter of fact, the issue has caught the attention of the Dutch who are now considering imposing a fine of 3,000 Euros on those students who do not complete their studies on time.
There are currently about 400 St. Martin students in The Netherlands who S4 takes care of in one way or another. Bringing them back home to make their contribution is a priority of this government. We cannot continue to invest in the education of our children only for others to benefit from our investment. I have commissioned a study on the Return on Investment (ROI) in education, given the challenges we face in the field of human resources. It is untenable for example, that after so many years of pumping money into education, we still cannot boast of enough teachers of our own, nor enough lawyers, or other professionals. The study will help us understand what we are doing wrong and suggest corrective measures we can take to change this.
Change is indeed inevitable in the process of transforming our educational system. Change we can embrace and manage properly. Change that can generate enough enthusiasm to unleash our creative potential. Change that can turn St. Martin into the language capital of the Caribbean because the average St. Martin student that leaves secondary school here should be fluent in three to four languages: English, Dutch, Spanish and French. This is one of the goals I have set for our school system.
Fellow St. Martiners, residents of our beloved island:
In conclusion, I believe we need to ask ourselves the following questions: is our educational system delivering the goods? Does it respond to the needs of a 21st Century St. Martin?
In all honesty, I am of the view that we cannot yet answer either question in the affirmative. The state of our education is not as healthy as it should be. We face numerous challenges which we cannot shy away from. However, we must restore common sense to education and accept the fact that the focal point of everything we do must be the student. Moulding the mind of that student should be the beginning and the end of all our endeavors as educators.
I have an unflinching faith in the St. Martin student. I am also inspired by the incredible passion I observe in the face of most teachers and by the dedication and determination many school managers exhibit in running their respective schools. I salute all educators who go the extra mile to help children whose circumstances and backgrounds are incredibly challenging to reach for higher heights. And I am comforted by the commitment of those parents who take the education of their children seriously enough to make the time to get involved in it in a meaningful way.
I believe, like many of you who have made the education of our children your life's work, that no St. Martin child, indeed, no child, is too dumb to learn. I am also aware that our educators need better tools to work with, better training and re-training, more support and certainly more, not less, funding. And although we cannot yet declare that all is well with our system – and I am sure if you have been following what is happening around the world, nobody is happy with the declining results of their educational systems – I am confident that we are on the right path in our quest to elevate standards. This is the challenge of the new school year: to make it much better than the last.
I want to seize this opportunity to thank all the staff of my Ministry, all the teachers, the school boards, the parents, and especially the students, both old and new. We might not realize how much progress we have made because of the huge challenges before us. This is because, indeed, we have a lot of work to do. However, together, I am sure we shall succeed. Let us now all step up to the plate and give it our best shot as we build this nation, one mind at a time.
I wish you all a most rewarding, a most exciting, and a most successful new school year.
God bless you; God bless St. Martin.