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Measure twice, cut once

Jack be nimble: time will tell if education minister Diallo Rabain proves to be quick on his feet in changing course should present results continue to trend downward, despite the successes of an isolated few (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

If public access to information requests are being “weaponised”, as David Burt recently claimed, then The Royal Gazette’s publication of primary school results shows there should be a Pati arms race.

That’s because, for the first time in living memory, parents were given the opportunity to see exactly how their children’s schools were performing — not in isolation, but in comparison to their peers.

The report showed that none of Bermuda’s primary schools are performing especially well, and that they are particularly bad at teaching maths. At the same time, some schools are clearly doing a much better job than others.

This is vital information to know. What primary school a child attends can have an enormous impact on the rest of their lives, and parents should have as much information as possible as they make choices in their children’s best interests.

This information is important for the broader community as well. Bermuda’s education system is on the verge of its biggest restructuring in 20 years, yet beyond a vague sense that public schools are underperforming, few people have a true sense of what is working and what is not.

It was not that long ago that theMinistry of Education tried to close St David’s Primary School on the not unreasonable grounds that it was one of the smaller schools on the island. It soon came out that it was also one of the highest-performing, and this was confirmed this week. St David’s had the best three-year average results in all three subjects tested — English, maths and science. Not bad for a school the ministry wanted to close.

The Royal Gazette correctly published the three-year averages because a single year can skew the results. Indeed, St David’s had an exceptional year in 2016 when its students scored unusually well. But its results in 2015 and 2017 were still among the best in each year.

As this newspaper reported, with a very few exceptions, maths results were poor across the board, and even schools that performed respectably in English and science dropped below 2 — “poor” — for maths. And only three schools — St David’s, St George’s Prep and Dalton E. Tucker — averaged above 3 or “good”.

Many arguments are marshalled for why results should not be published, including the reasonable fear that students will be stereotyped based on what school they attend, and the less reasonable fear that parents will understandably vote with their feet and will try to get their children into the best-performing schools.

More arguments are marched out to explain why schools should not be judged solely on one set of examination results. Exam results do not reflect the whole child or all that schools do in the course of a day or a year. Some schools teach to the test, thus depriving students of enriching experiences that are not part of the exam curriculum. Some schools’ populations will struggle because they come from more deprived backgrounds than others. Some exams, such as Cambridge, are not suited to Bermuda because they are too anglophile.

Exams cannot be the only measure of a school’s success, but they are one of the few quantifiable and objective ways of measuring a school’s performance. Without them, administrators, principals and teachers can assure parents and children that everything is fine, when these results show they demonstrably are not.

What is worrying is that even Bermuda’s best schools are producing results that are considered to be “good, but average”. Not one school scored close to a “6” — excellent — in any subject. Only St David’s scored fives — presumably classified as very good and above average — in any subject at all and then in one exceptional year.

How can anyone be satisfied with this?

Is it any surprise that virtually anyone who can afford to send their children to private school does, or that the movement to private schools accelerates after primary school because the middle schools and secondary schools are generally perceived as being worse than the primary schools?

Why do so many public-school teachers and principals send their own children to private schools?

Why has another new private school just been announced?

There are highly intelligent and high-achieving students in all the public schools. But the average performance is unacceptable. We are failing our children.

This begs the question of whether the planned restructuring of the system is the right solution. Given the results from the primary schools, restructuring the middle schools and replacing them with “signature schools” gives the appearance of treating the symptoms rather than the cure.

This newspaper has long held that the Bermuda education system’s problems have very little to do with the structure of the system or even the curriculum. Most studies show that two greatest influences on student performance are parents and teachers.

Dedicated parents know that their job does not consist of simply making sure their children go to school every day. It means reading to them and with them, overseeing homework, introducing them to enriching after-school activities and holding their teachers accountable. To be sure, not all parents can do all they would wish, but even the smallest effort can make a difference.

But governments and communities cannot do much to change students’ parenting or backgrounds. What they can control are teaching standards. Among school-related factors, effective teaching has the single greatest influence on student achievement.

Rather than embarking on a great, and expensive, reform of the structure of education, Minister of Education Diallo Rabain would do better to go and visit St David’s, St George’s Prep and Dalton E Tucker to try to figure out why they succeed when others fail.

Over Labour Day, Bermuda Union of Teachers general secretary Mike Charles called for a revolution in Bermuda’s schools. But the BUT would do better if it joined with Mr Rabain and principals on a genuine strategy of teacher improvement — identifying and learning from the best teachers in the system and stop fighting tooth and nail for teachers who are failing our children.

Mr Rabain has shown a praiseworthy desire to improve education, and with two years under his belt, is now starting to have some longevity in a portfolio where tenure has often been measured in months, not years.

He may also feel that because signature schools were in the PLP’s platform that he is obliged to push them through or risk getting a failing grade from his principal — the Premier. But the best politicians also know when a policy is wrong and when to change course.

Signature schools sound nice, but they are no more a panacea for what is wrong with Bermuda’s schools than middle schools were. If Bermuda invested a fraction of what it is going to spend on this restructuring on genuine teacher improvement instead, the results would be there for all to see.

Measure twice, cut once, Mr Rabain.