Accountability and Alignment in Education
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /

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!