There can be no excuses or blaming parents for poor performance in schools, Cayman Islands’ teachers were told on Friday.
Avis Glaze, an international education expert, said good teaching and early intervention could have a profound effect on the life chances of struggling schoolchildren from tough backgrounds.
Delivering the keynote address to a crowd of about 600 teachers at the annual educators’ seminar, Ms Glaze said intensive work in schools could ensure that “poverty does not determine destiny”.
The former Ontario schools commissioner, who has worked on education policies in 30 different countries, praised Cayman’s new strategic plan, saying it was among the best she had seen. But she said the key to a successful system lay largely with teachers. She said educators worldwide needed to move toward a “no excuses” culture.
“We need to get to the point in education where we recognise it is about instruction and leadership,” she said. “We can no longer blame parents. We cannot control what parents do. All we have influence on is once the children come through the doors to us, what are we going to do?”
She said slow learners needed to be identified early and targeted for specific tutoring. She urged teachers not to use lack of funding as an excuse and use parent volunteers and high school students to help.
“Don’t say, ‘give me the money and I will do it’. It takes will and skill,” she said. “We need money, yes, but we will never have enough money in these difficult times.”
She said the approach had worked in Ontario where she helped reverse a trend of failure in schools and improved results across the board.
“When I say no excuses, I know it can be done, because we did it,” Ms Glaze said.
She made the remarks in an address to the entire teaching body in the Cayman Islands, many of them dressed in Superman style T-shirts to fit with the theme of the day – “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower”.
In an energetic hour-long speech at Mary Miller Hall, Ms Glaze urged teachers to have a “laser like focus” on student achievement, particularly in literacy and numeracy. She said school leaders needed to ensure timetables were flexible enough to target problem areas. And she urged them to set ambitious targets for their students, particularly in reading.
She warned: “Some places are building prisons based on whether or not children can read by the end of grade three. You can predict the prison population by reading scores in elementary schools.”
She said 90 per cent of children should be able to read by the end of grade one and 100 per cent by the end of grade three.
“Children begin to drop out if they can’t read by grade three,” she added. “Many people think high school is a problem for dropouts. The dropping out begins psychologically in elementary schools. They just stay as long as they have to.”
She said teachers and school leaders needed to be humble enough to ask for help. She also insisted there was no value in “shaming and blaming” teachers who were struggling. “When we have weak teachers we have to give them help.”
The Cayman Islands has had long-standing problems with numeracy and literacy levels in schools. GCSE results have improved dramatically in recent years. But reading, and particularly maths, are still big areas of concern for all age groups.
Educators, including Roy Bodden, president of the University College of the Cayman Islands, have sought to explain the issue by referencing the islands’ social problems.
Ms Glaze said she was impressed by what she had seen in the local schools during her visit. And she acknowledged that the background of students played a big part in their performance in school.
But she said it was up to teachers to level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Remember, instruction has the largest influence on student achievement,” Ms Glaze said. “The teacher effect is important. Five years of effective teaching can completely close the gap between low income students and others.”
In a broad-ranging speech, Ms Glaze, who runs Edu-quest International, also referenced the challenges facing teachers in the 21st century. She said teaching character development, using technology and understanding ethics were key parts of the job to prepare young people for the challenges of the modern world.
Earlier, Chief Officer for the Ministry of Education Mary Rodrigues had told teachers they had a vital role to play in the reform of the territory’s education system.
She said: “Make no mistake, we are in the midst of one of the biggest education reform agendas the Cayman Islands has ever seen. Be encouraged by the fact that we are building foundations that will serve our children and country well in the future; be motivated by the fact that we have a plan for how we can move forward together; and be inspired by the fact that we are well on our way and can already point to clear signs of progress.
“Most of all, celebrate the fact that you, our educators and our students, are firmly established at the centre of all that we aspire to do as your education ministry.”