Cayman schools: Elevate the education debate

We are troubled by the contents of reports that describe shortcomings and misbehavior on the part of teachers, as well as students, in the Cayman Islands public school system.

We are more troubled, however, by the government’s suppression of the November 2012 independent review and related documents, and officials’ initial public response to the documents.

Let us be clear that any teacher found guilty of mistreating a student should be disciplined, possibly dismissed or reported to the police as the situation warrants. Any teacher whose performance is inadequate should be retrained, or, if that is not possible, “retired.” Remember, a nonperforming teacher multiplies his or her ignorance by the size of the class.

At the same time lawmakers were reviewing this unpublished and unpublicized report, they were also musing on the possibility of increasing salaries for teachers, especially the Caymanian ones. It is a clear signal of policymakers’ intent to frame our country’s education crisis as a conflict between “us and them,” or more precisely “Caymanian children versus foreign teachers.”

That cannot happen.

Officials and lawmakers must not be allowed to make political scapegoats out of our teachers, particularly expatriates, in order to divert the public’s attention away from fundamental flaws in Cayman’s education system.

Cherry-picking from unpublished reports is no substitute for a measured conversation on preparing our country’s youth for future success. Neither is pointing fingers at the nearest person with an unfamiliar last name or differently colored passport. Education is far too important to fall victim to such divisive parochialism and politics.

What Cayman needs is more voices in the education debate, more transparency in the government administration and more accountability for everyone involved in the school system.
We can identify five key parties in public education, each with an identifiable set of motivations, obligations and powers. These are: politicians, administrators, parents, teachers (and other on-campus staff) and students.
While each of the five parties plays an important role, actual learning takes place only at the nexus between the student and the teacher. That is the sacred interface, and outsiders should rarely be allowed to trespass.

Politicians should limit their involvement in education to providing adequate (but not extravagant) funding to the school system. The lavish construction of Clifton Hunter High School had much more to do with politics than learning.

As anyone who has studied education knows, cognitive outputs almost never equal financial inputs. With an engaged teacher, a student can learn to read sitting beneath a sea grape tree.

Administrators should limit themselves to establishing broad policies (such as discipline and dress codes), establishing (in concert with principals and teachers) basic curricula, occasionally monitoring results and, well … that’s enough. What they should not do is smother teachers with bureaucratic paperwork or attempt to micromanage precious minutes of teaching time in the classroom.

Parents, of course, serve their children best when learning is a central focus in their own lives and in their homes. In every country and culture, education has always been the “way up” (or the “way out”) for those seeking a better life. Cayman is no different.

We could do worse as a society than to envisage all of Cayman as a learning laboratory — a “national classroom,” if you will — where thinking, reading and thoughtful (and civil) expression take their rightful place among our highest values.

That is the elevated discussion that should be taking place in our schools, our businesses, and our national assemblies.