Literacy remains at an alarmingly low level in T&T, with underperforming students–especially males–continuously left behind who eventually either drop out of the school system or turn to crime. Experts tell us that those who do not drop out of school enter the workforce but do not perform as well as they could with a better education, reducing the country's potential economic prowess. This is the second instalment of a T&T Guardian investigation into literacy in T&T by Fabian Pierre, and today gives teachers' views on why our literacy crisis continues.
Adult literacy (rate) is defined by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics as the total percentage of the population age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.
In 2000 at the World Education Forum in Dakar, the Education For All (EFA) goals were adopted, calling for a "50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015." For monitoring, the goal is typically interpreted to mean a reduction of the adult illiteracy rate by 50 per cent between 2000 and 2015.
T&T is listed as one of the countries that are likely to be within five percentage points of the target adult literacy rate by 2015. UNESCO's figures for T&T show that the adult literacy rates are at well over 90 per cent. The youth rates will show an increase from 1990 figures of 70 per cent, to a projected figure of well over 90 per cent in 2015.
These figures, however, are being questioned by the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (Alta), which notes they are highly inaccurate for a number of reasons.
"When the CSO does its population survey, one of the questions on the form is about literacy, which simply asks 'can you read and write?' Now, which person who cannot will tell you no?" Paula Lucie-Smith said.
The other factor, she said, is that information on school attendance is used as data for literacy calculations.
"Because the child is sitting in the classroom, that is what is used as information as to their abilities. That says nothing. So these are some of the reasons the data is inaccurate."
TTUTA: School system abusive
T&T Unified Teachers' Association (TTUTA) president Devanand Sinanan says he believes the approach to education in T&T is bad.
He said it is rooted in a plantation, slave-like model and does not encourage children to think.
"The system by and large is very cruel. What we practice as education is really child abuse," Sinanan said.
"In the primary schools, we put these little children in hot, cramped, classrooms, no air-conditioning, hard benches to sit on, for an entire day from 8 am to 4 pm. Then we have the lessons factor before and after school and we give them information by the ton loads and ask them to regurgitate it. That's not education, that's really child abuse."
He added that society has to accept what the system does, and the faster it is done the faster systemic problems can be overcome.
"It's not about creating a workforce any more. Despite all the knowledge and how modern we supposedly are in T&T, in this post colonial era we are still operating that plantation factory model of education, whereby we give them information and we don't want them to think.
"The factory model didn't want thinkers, you're just operating on a factory line, you have a particular task to do. I don't want to know what you think, and that's what's passing still for education in T&T unfortunately."
In his over 20 years of teaching at a junior secondary level, he has received many students who were unable to read or write, he said. In fact the problem was so critical, when universal secondary education came into being under then minister of education Kamla Persad-Bissessar, remedial classes had to be created.
"Remember the form one special? Basic literacy and numeracy levels were so low they could not access the secondary curriculum," the TTUTA president added, saying that the curriculum made certain assumptions and if children fell below them there was nothing in place to address it.
The school, he said, then becomes of no use to underperforming children. What was thought to be the solution then, he said, turned out to not even be a quick fix.
"Guess what? After one year it was still not enough. So they went into form two, and they went into form three and you have the attendant teenage issues of low self esteem, internal drop outs, running around the school, not really benefitting from the school ... and then eventually they drop out," Sinanan said.
The sciences teacher said in his time, the attrition rate for those students by form three was almost 80 per cent. This experience is what makes him question literacy statistics provided by global bodies, he said.
Too much, too soon
Like ALTA, Sinanan believes that T&T's education system asks too much academically of children too soon. An overloaded curriculum, he says, is adding to a host of problems that contribute to burnout and this leads him to ask what are we expecting from our children?
"What do we consider important? What are we expecting from our children?
"Camille Swapp always talks about brain development and we now have to factor in the latest research on brain development. So much so that in the scandanavian school system, formal schooling starts at age seven and not age five, and there's a very simple biological reason for it," he told the Guardian.
Sinanan said the research shows that boys learn differently from girls, and at a later stage in development.
"So one, many of them are turned off, and it's only because of parental pressure, those who come form a particular socio-economic background that they're getting that kind of support, and they pushing them for lessons, what have you, they will endure the system," he said.
Teacher training is also indequate, he says, adding that at no point in a teacher's training are they exposed to the realities of learning disabilities.
"You are taught pedagogy, theory and practice, you are taught to deliver your curriculum," he said.
While no other Caribbean country is listed, in an interview with Caribbean 360 in 2011, Jamaica's Minister of Education, Andrew Hollness, expressed dissatisfaction with figures available on the country's literacy rate. Hollness was speaking about the country's partnership with UNESCO on implementation of the Literacy Assessment Monitoring Programme (LAMP) to accurately assess literacy levels among Jamaicans.
The T&T Guardian contacted one of the authors of the 1995 UWI National Literacy Survey, Dr Godfrey St Bernard- now at the UWI's Mona campus, but he said he was unable to comment on that or any other updated information at the moment. The Guardian also attempted, without succcess, to contact Dr Lawrence Carrington, who was said to be was instrumental in a meeting with representatives from various English-speaking Caricom nations on the development of a plan for continuous monitoring and development of literacy levels in the various Caricom countries.
In a 2011 survey of 149 schools in T&T the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievment (IEA) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) body found 50 per cent of those surveyed were literate to the intermediate level and 78 per cent to low international benchmarks. benchmark. The figures don't represent national figures.)
?PIRLS says Singapore, Russian Federation, Northern Ireland, Finland, England and Hong Kong SAR reached advanced international literacy benchmarks. The majority of the PIRLS countries were able to educate 95 per cent of their fourth grade students to a basic reading level-Low Benchmark. The report, however, lists only the countries willing to participate.)