Something more for Mr Holness

Andrew Holness, the education minister, says he is not in favour of performance-based pay for school principals, which is among the elements of a sanction-and-reward system in education for which this newspaper has campaigned.

So, he talks about performance-based contracts for head teachers, although neither in his parliamentary speech on Tuesday nor at his subsequent press conference did he indicate how he intends to sanction heads who fail to perform. Or, perhaps more appropriately in the context of the crisis in education and the urgency with which transformation is necessary, neither did he outline a strategy to incentivise the system and to reward those who excel.

Frankly, though, it matters little to us what he calls it if Mr Holness achieves his target of 95 per cent literacy at grade four by 2015. For Jamaica has talked transformation for too long, with too little to show for the effort.

High-energy transformation project

Half a decade ago, we promised ourselves that by 2010 at least 85 per cent of all students in the relevant age cohort would achieve mastery of the grade four literacy inventory and the mean test score in Grade Six Achievement Test would be 85 per cent. Those targets, and others that were set in that high-energy transformation project, will not be met – by substantial margins.

Indeed, as Mr Holness pointed out, this year only 73 per cent of the students at grade four mastered the specific literacy inventory at the first sitting, although after additional interventions that number rose to a bit over 80 per cent. His ministry’s projection is that, at the current trajectory, mastery at the first sitting should be 88 per cent in 2015.

Mr Holness, quite rightly, believes, as we do, that that target is too low. He wants to do better.

There is no clear sign that the teachers’ union, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, and teachers generally are on-board except, maybe, in a broad conceptual way. What we have had are gripes and excuses and the threats by Doran Dixon to take the Government to the International Labour Organisation over the public-sector wage freeze.

National performance ranking

Mr Dixon’s unremarkable presidency, thankfully, will soon be at end. But Mr Holness can expect the JTA to resist the plan to write into the contracts of principals, annual literacy-improvement targets.

We, however, do believe that it ought not to be left to the whim of school boards to sanction principals who fail to deliver. The boards operate with specific criteria and national oversight and review. In that regard, performance targets for schools must be transparent and ownership must rest with all stakeholders – including parents and communities. A national performance ranking of schools, appropriately weighted to take into account the starting point of each institution, would probably make sense as part of this transparency.

It is our view, too, that principals and teachers who perform well and whose outcomes are beyond the basic deliverables should be appropriately acknowledged and compensated. In other words, Mr Holness should not be afraid to pay performers on merit. For part of the failure of the past is to have been entrapped by the mediocre, who have been able to establish the benchmarks and expropriate the returns of those who excel.

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