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Purely Dominica

Purely Dominica

Editor’s note:This article was published in the Editorial section of the Chronicle Newspaper on July 31st, 2009.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and other proponents of the controversial Universal Secondary Education (USE) system continue to use deceptive rhetoric to sell the ailing project as a success and refuse to face the fact that it is not working and needs to be fixed or abandoned.

In an interview broadcast during the inaugural international cricket match at the Windsor Park Stadium, PM Skerrit spoke of his expertise and experience as an educator as well as his training in psychology. As the interview unfolded, he mentioned USE as one of his pet projects but maybe his thoughts were more focused on psychology than education at the time.

Indeed, there seems to be perverse psychology at play behind the response of the USE’s advocates to mounting skepticism about the project. It is manifested in a three-pronged approach consisting of rehashing the good intentions of USE, glossing over its failures and implying that critics callously want to keep down “poor people’s children” who fail primary school.

It is a cunning play to stir up people’s raw emotions and hope this clouds their better judgment. But in the long term, it will not work. Those who feel it know it. Teachers, parents and students who are feeling the crushing effects of USE’s flaws cannot help acquiring the distressing knowledge that the system is crumbling around their ears.

No one questions the good intentions of the USE but critics question its effectiveness and practicality. No one expects a complex system like USE to work flawlessly from the inception but no one expects it to be retained if glaring fatal flaws make it unusable and damaging. Furthermore, no one wants to deny any child a secondary education. However, those who fail primary school cannot be dumped ‘en masse’ on secondary schools without dire consequences.

The issues with USE are quite straightforward. Hundreds of students are being admitted to secondary schools. Many are not literate and cannot absorb a normal secondary education. Teachers are being forced to juggle the special needs of such children with the needs of those children who are capable of handling secondary school work. This puts enormous pressure on secondary schools’ physical and human resources and parents, teachers and students are all short changed by the system.

Some advocates of USE point to its success in other countries without regard for the peculiarities of its nature and implementation in Dominica. In nations where USE is working, the learning curve for children who are being brought up to speed is not as long and as steep as it is here. The stark reality is that the gap in knowledge between those who are ready for secondary education and those who are not is monumental, not marginal, requiring massive remedial work that is simply too taxing for teachers and students.

The bottom line is: a school is not a secondary school because a sign on the door says so; it is a secondary school because secondary education is being taught and learnt there. If the students in a school are not being taught at secondary level, it cannot be a secondary school. No legitimate university accepts those who fail secondary school and no legitimate secondary school should accept those who fail primary school.

Dumping children who fail primary school into secondary schools and then teaching them primary school work while pretending they are getting a secondary education is tantamount to creating a “fool’s paradise.”
Give those who fail primary school every opportunity to get further education, but don’t call it a secondary education under USE when it is not.

Have your say.

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Comment by Dan
2009-08-04 17:13:25

The law of unintended consequences at work!

Perhaps secondary education should have to be earned.

Comment by Chris
2009-08-04 20:27:51

That’s how it was before….students had to sit the common entrance exam, and if you pass – you go on to secondary school. Nowadays every child gets to go to secondary school, whether or not the student can read and write.

Comment by Karen
2009-08-05 11:54:34

I find the harangue against mandatory secondary school education to be most disingenuous and dangerous particularly as it affects the future of our children. Secondary school SHOULD unequivocally be available to ALL children and should not be an option for those who simply pass one test. One test does not (and should not) reflect the complex nature of aptitude and intelligence. Extant research clearly shows that people excel at their own pace, and that no two people are alike. Moreover, environments that are not conducive to learning (e.g., poor nutrition, family strife, educationally unsophisticated parents, poverty etc.) may create the false facade that a child is unable to learn new material and apt to failure. Nothing could be further from the truth, and for one test to be the determinant of a child’s future not only does a grave disservice to that child and to his or her family, but also to society as a whole, and goes against the grain of what we know about learning and development.

The biggest question that needs to be resolved is “why are children failing?” The answer most likely lies in the inept and antiquated teaching styles in Dominica. In particular, the draconian notion that all children learn the same way and that education should be applied the same way to all children. Study upon study (in the US and the UK) show that schools that care about their students, identify the learning patterns of children, and teach materials to suit those learning patterns. It appears that those who are strenuously against USE do not consider the thousands of students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities who are indeed intelligent– perhaps even more so than average– but who are unable to maneuver the antiquated teaching system in Dominica. We simply cannot afford to keep these children behind, and it is a shame that this type of uninformed thinking is what passes for serious talk regarding the overhaul of our educational system.

I have no problem with the availability of vocational schools for teenagers; after all, not all children are geared toward becoming scholars. But a basic HS diploma should absolutely be a definitive goal. It is the least we can do for our children—particularly those who may go abroad one day to further their studies and will be required to compete with their peers. A high school diploma is not just a piece of paper as some have put it, but a testament to the child that society cares about and values him or her, and wants him or her to be successful. It also allows for late bloomers to blossom at his or her own pace without being made to feel like a failure. Finally, it instills in the child perseverance, hard work, discipline, and accomplishment– traits that transcend all aspects of life.

I completely agree with PM Skerrit that USE should be absolutely mandatory, just overhauled.

Here are some suggestions:

1.Early identification of children who perform poorly in school. (Teachers are not doing their jobs if a child reaches 6xth grade and cannot read).

2.Each school should have either a social worker or guidance counselor or both who could ascertain the child’s home life to understand how that environment may be contributing to some learning difficulties.

3.Children who perform poorly at the 1st grade level should be tested for a possible learning disability. LD does not mean a child is stupid—just that his or her brain is wired differently. Identification and subsequent remediation is money well spent.

4.All children should undergo a hearing and eye test early on to ferret out problems that may be the cause of learning difficulties.

5.Teaching should be more geared toward true learning styles, not antiquated teaching methods like rote memorization of facts—but geared toward a better understanding of those facts through multiple examples and hands-on experiences.

6.Teaching should be exciting–a testament to having skilled teachers.

7.At minimum, teachers should be required to have a certificate from an accredited school that has taught tried and true teaching methods, before they teach our children.

8.Teachers should make every attempt to keep parents in the loop about their children’s progress and suggest better ways for children to complete assignments.

9.We need ongoing parenting skills and awareness at all levels of a child’s education. Parents need to be made accountable as well.

No longer are schools just schools. They are multidisciplinary institutions where professionals from various sectors come together with the sole goal of making the future brighter for all of our children.

Comment by boboy
2009-10-19 23:13:39

Karen, i could not agree with you more. I just need to add that there are at least three other assessments at the primary school level before students reach grade 6. these are all meant to be diagnostic in purpose. Yet, schools do make the correct use of the exams results and reports and continue to teach like all the students are at the same level. Teachers, not the government should be held responsible for students failing at school. Since USE, teachers, parent and students have taken a laid back attitude.

I agree that USE in its current form is not the best. The only thing that i would include now is a technical aspect to the schools’ curriculum. And I am sure that this is in the pipeline somewhere. St. Vincent has adopted USE, Grenada is in the process, Barbados…..everyone realizes that USE is not at all that bad.

Yes, with the old system only the top students went to secondary schools and these students were almost always the students of the “big shots” in Dominica. they were advanced because their parents could afford extra classes and all the extra books and the extra “advantage”. Now it is time to give everyone a chance to achieve.

We in Dominica are quick to criticize but are never in a position to offer solutions. I would like to know where this editor got his facts from. what research he did and how he conducted his research. And those who like to politicize everything, i am NOT a labourite…in fact i am very far from RED.

Comment by Joel Halfwassen
2009-08-05 16:00:29

Universal Secondary Education just plain does not work. Countries that have used it have all written it off as a failure. Good intentions gone wrong. Plain and simple businesses expect a certain standard to come out of the Universities, which in turn expect a certain standard to come out of the Secondary Schools, which by necessity needs to meet those minimum standards.

Karen – The problem is that I doubt Dominica has the money for anything BUT a one size fits all education approach.

For points 1, 2, 3, and 5 – The development of separate curricula for each student group requires time and staff which requires cash which, honestly, Dominica does not have. We have this issue in the rural US. If you want special education for your child you need to look elsewhere. Someplace that DOES have the resources. Or as a community you need to choose to supply the resources through private donations, an increase in taxes, or both.

Point 4 should be an annual event and taken when kids do their annual school physicals (I am assuming Dominica requires them).

Point 6, 7, and 8 – I agree. This is SO vital!

Point 9 – This would be nice, but not very realistic. How would you make parents accountable?

Comment by Dan
2009-08-07 12:40:19

We’ve retired to Dominica. We had lived the last 31 years in Massachusetts. OUr daughter was an excellent grade school and high school student and earned a full 4-year scholarship to the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Upon entering UMass she was given tests in mathematics and English, and she did so well in them that she did not have to take any UMass courses in those subjects.

But UMass also took in students on “entitlement”. Record numbers of freshmen (about 60%) could not pass those tests and did not complete their freshman year.

But our daughter was denied extra scholarship aid (for example, an on-campus job) even though she was the most (in fact the only) qualified applicant, on the grounds that she already had a scholarship, and the aid had to be reserved for “entitlement” students.

Our daughter graduated UMass cum laude, by the way, and has since earned a Master’s Degree.

I am 68 and went to high school when you had to earn your diploma and it meant something. You graduated either in manual arts (for future tradespeople), business, or college preparatory (which I did). I have found that my college preparatory education in high school taught me at least as much, and in some cases more, than many college students learn today. Perhaps that’s why my 4-year degree allowed me to earn a living, but our daughter was required to earn a Master’s degree to preserve her credentials.

I know this: If I’m looking up from a hospital gurney, I wouldn’t want to think that my surgeon’s education was entitlement-based. I’d want to know that he or she earned his or her degrees!

Secondary education everywhere should be an EARNED entitlement.

Otherwise, I’d echo Joel’s comments. You’ll find that many students here don’t have intact families, or that the adults at home are illiterate, or at lease very, very, unlearned and unable to help the kids. I voluntarily tutor our neighbor’s daughter, now entering 4th form, in physics, chemistry, biology and math because her parents can’t help her although they wish they could. For them, it’s a strain just to afford the costs of sending her to high school. And, because they must both work, the student has many time-consuming chores to do at home in addition to her studies.

Most, if not all, of that which Karen writes is simply misinformed or uninformed and dead wrong.

Comment by Dan
2009-08-09 11:39:07

Here’s an interesting sidebar on the problem:

I tend to agree with the opinion that the plan is a form of positive discriminatin that punishes those who studied hard and schools that taught well.

Comment by Karen
2009-08-31 19:34:49

Dan, for you to dismiss everything I have said on the basis of tutoring ONE child whose parents are unable to provide basic educational assistance says quite a lot about your insensitivity to the complex issues facing Dominican families. I don’t know whether to laugh or shake my head in disgust. My assertions above aren’t arbitrary but based on substantive factual information about what happens to children not given the opportunities to which your daughter was exposed. How very sad that you wish to prevent Dominican children from experiencing similar successes. That you presume to know what Dominican school children need reflects paucity in the basic understanding of child development–human development actually. I am hopeful that the PM continues to consult with those who essentially know and understand the research, those who understand complex family structures, those who care, and those who are sensitive to the cultural milieu of our small island, to make the best, reasoned decisions for our children. And I am hopeful you are not one of them.

Comment by boboy
2009-10-19 23:20:03


I am not ashamed to say that this is the typical “foreigner| speaking. they use one instance, one statistic and make a generalization. see how greedy he is. his daughter is already on scholarship but is hoping that a less fortunate student is denied one so his daughter could have 2 (or more). I am not laughing. I am shaking my head in disgust.

Comment by Joel Halfwassen
2009-10-20 22:45:33

I would hardly call it greed. University in the US can cost well over $100,000.00 for 4 years. Each scholarships only covers between $500.00-$30,000.00 of that. Student loans normally cover the rest which then take 30 years to pay off. To have someone who does not have the grades to get a scholarship over someone who does simply because of the tax bracket they reside in is just plain wrong. This goes back to the basic argument of hard work deserving the reward. If you work hard for your place in an educational institution you should get it. Period. If you are unable to do what is needed to get that place then you need to find some other way to make a living. Not everyone is cut out for academics.


On a side note…if a community feels that others have an unfair advantage because of access to tutors, books, computer, etc then that community needs to come together and pool their resources to provide those things. It is amazing what economies of scale can do to even the odds when faced with perceived financial inequalities. Either way the government should not be the one to cry to about that. Roll up your sleeves and tackle the issue yourself. It just takes one person to organize and the group tends to follow, especially if the group benefits.

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