August 31, 2007

Whither Math and Science?


The generally good academic performance of students in the country is commendable and must be praised. However, percentage pass rates can sometimes mask areas of concern that need urgent attention.{{more}}

One such area is science and math education. When the Cambridge A’level results were released last week, the results in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics were disappointing to say the least, and there was a loud outcry from the students and their parents. No one got a Grade A in any of these subjects; there was one B, 10 Cs, some Ds and Es and many, many Us.

But even though this has only come to national attention this year, educators and others close to the system have observed that results throughout the system in these areas have been less than desirable for some time now.

In fact, percentage wise, the A’level Math and Science results are better this year than last year, but the issue of the quality of the results has been worrisome for some time now.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister alluded to the need to find incentives to attract and keep good science and Math teachers in the system. That is a good start. Anyone who has taught science (or any subject for that matter) at A’level will tell you that it takes some time for a teacher to master the teaching of the course material. A high turnover of teachers therefore does not help, but will continue to be the case for science teachers who are lured away by attractive opportunities in the private sector or other parts of the service.

We must find ways to make young, bright, ambitious math and science teachers want to stay. A love for teaching, the students and country will not be enough for long. When they look at their schoolmates who have studied Economics for example, making their way up in the public service while their standards of living continue to decline, they will leave.

What of the laboratory facilities at the Community College and our secondary schools? A science student needs to have enough time in the lab over the duration of the course to master the prescribed experimental skills. Practical classes should be held as often as possible, and while group work can sometimes work, there should be enough equipment to enable students to conduct individual experiments. After all, they will be on their own in the final exam. No matter how well a student does in the theoretical papers, if he or she fails the practical, he or she cannot get a good grade. This is as it should be – a scientist must be a competent experimenter.

In all of this, we cannot ignore the students’ aptitude for the subject area. A student’s performance in a particular subject at the O’level gives a good indication of how he or she will fare at A’level. A student who scores a Grade III at CSEC should really think twice about pursuing that subject at A’level. Children have their dreams, but they should also be realistic and accept the guidance from the CSEC examination profiles, teachers and counselors at the A’level College.

On the other hand, good science students who have Ones at CSEC are now shying away from writing these subjects at A’level, opting instead to take up the Arts or Business, which they feel will give them a better chance at getting a national scholarship. This has implications for national development.

Finally, educators say, and statistics prove them right, that there is underperformance in mathematics throughout the system. Only 25% of the students who wrote that subject at CSEC this year were successful.

Just as we had a national symposium on crime and violence in schools, policy makers, administrators, educators, parents and students need to come together as a first step towards tackling the challenge of mathematics and science education in the system.