EDITORIAL – The high cost of low-performing schools

“Going to church on Sunday doesn’t necessarily make someone a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes them a car.”
– Unknown

“There is scant evidence of a positive correlation between increased financial input into, and increased cognitive output from, schools.”
– George F. Will, American writer

“Students’ attainment in mathematics, English and science was below international standards in all year groups.”
– Office of Education Standards, September 2018 Inspection Report, Clifton Hunter High School


Where you are doesn’t matter. It’s what you do that counts.

Now, let’s talk about Clifton Hunter.

Government inspectors had plenty to say about Grand Cayman’s $110 million high school, starting with their overall assessment of the school as “weak” (the lowest possible rating, equivalent to an old-fashioned “F”), and continuing with a list of deficiencies that should chasten anyone in Cayman who supports addressing educational challenges through expensive, even lavish, capital projects.

For example:

  • School leaders who were “over-generous” in staff evaluations;
  • Teachers who assigned “undemanding” busywork, offered only superficial feedback on assignments and were “over-generous” in their assessment of student work;
  • Students who were often expected to work despite a lack of necessary instructional tools (such as compasses and protractors in geometry classes), and gifted students who “were not challenged to achieve beyond what was expected of them”;
  • A lack of rigor in school curriculum, leaving students underprepared for more challenging work.

The unsurprising result of this confluence of inadequacies was unsatisfactory educational outcomes: “Attainment in English, mathematics and science in relation to international standards was weak.”

The inspectors’ report is informative, but should not be seen as the only or even most important measure of performance at Clifton Hunter or any other school, including John Gray High School and Layman E. Scott High School, which for the record achieved comparatively better ratings of “Satisfactory” in relatively more modest facilities.

We think it is relevant to note that the Clifton Hunter construction boondoggle resulted in the school costing at least $110 million, more than twice the pre-tender cost estimate of $45 million. For perspective, the ongoing expansion of the Owen Roberts International Airport is expected to be about half of the Clifton Hunter project (although there, too, final costs are expected to exceed the initial estimate of $55 million).

The poor report on Clifton Hunter demonstrates the truism that, beyond an easy-to-discern level of sufficient investment (i.e., safe and comfortable facilities of adequate size), pouring additional resources into a school – whether it be in the form of sparkling buildings or new technologies – does little to improve the amount of learning that takes place within that school. The fact is that learning occurs on a more human level, between an able teacher and an engaged, prepared student.

Students’ scores on annual standardized tests are also useful, but also not comprehensive. Inspections, examinations and other metrics can only approximate the effectiveness of an educational system. The only test that really matters occurs outside the school buildings – in workplaces and university administration offices, which act as final judge and jury on the quality of graduates, and their preparedness for employment or further academic studies.

We strongly suggest you read the column by Richard W. Rahn that appears to the right of this editorial, concerning the positive story of Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquin university.

As the column alludes, at the highest levels and over the longest terms, a country’s education system is far more than a mere jobs program – it dictates a country’s destiny.

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  1. Such a sad state of affairs. private schools should be given the money and allowed to create more schools instead of Gov’t public schools. The percentage of success is assured in the private school environment. Plus private schools have proven they can build for 10% of the cost of public schools.