February 1, 2013

Students’ poor performance part of a larger cycle

Vincentian secondary school graduates’ poor performance in math and English is part of a larger cycle that includes teachers of the subjects struggling to pass them at the “Teachers’ College”.{{more}}

The Teachers’ College — the Division of Teacher Education of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Community College (SVGCC) — last year saw the graduation of the first cohort of teachers enrolled in the two-year Bachelor of Education degree in math or literacy.

Nigel Scott, deputy director of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Community College, told SEARCHLIGHT on Wednesday that of the 35 students who enrolled in the math programme, one died, four dropped out, and 11 passed at the first sitting.

Of those who passed the math programme, one student — Derron Dennie — obtained a First Class honours degree.

“It is not that persons failed,” Scott explained, saying that the students who did not pass all of their exams have either re-sat them or are planning to do so.

But math and English, SEARCHLIGHT understands, present particular challenges for the students at the Teacher Division, in much the same way they do for many of the nation’s other students.

“There are particular challenges in math and English across the Caribbean and probably in the world,” Scott said.

The college, he added, is “trying to bolster people’s confidence”.

But a Teachers’ College graduate who successfully completed the programme said that the performance of his fellow teachers “is kind of embarrassing, because they failed”.

He further observed that the pass rate of the educators — who are still teaching the nation’s primary and secondary school students — is in keeping with the performance of high school graduates.

Last year, when only 27.9 per cent of the students who wrote Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examinations in math and 49.97 per cent who wrote English passed, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves asked the Ministry of Education to hold a conversation, early last term, on why students are performing so poorly.

Chief Education Officer Lou-Anne Gilchrist did not immediately respond to emailed questions on Wednesday about whether the conversation had taken place and what was the outcome.

But the graduate, who requested anonymity, said the teachers who enrolled for the degree programme had been teaching math for an average of a decade or more and some of them are “close to retirement”.

But the graduate said the result of the programme did not suggest any link between teaching experience and whether a person passed the programme.

The graduate said the degree programme had two components: content math — just working out math problems; and, pedagogy — how to teach math.


“The delivery was OK,” the graduate said, but added that while the entire programme was delivered, the college had problems finding lecturers.

“… the college in St Vincent had the task of looking for lecturers here, there and everywhere to deliver the course,” the graduate said of the programme, that is accredited by the University of the West Indies School of Education.

Asked why so many persons failed, the graduate said many of the candidates were primary school teachers and did not have advanced level math.

“… and that gave them a difficult time … It was just for them to be studious, because we were moving at a fast pace [with] the content,” the graduate said.

Further, the teachers had to source their own textbooks, which were “costly and … weren’t readily available in St Vincent.”

The teachers also had to be “computer savvy”, and some of them were not.

But Eula Adams, dean of the Teacher Division had noted in a press statement last year that the programme was done on a part-time basis with class held face to face, using local lecturers, three or four days a week.

“Teachers found it challenging, since they were still engaged in full-time employment; however, the majority of them persevered to the end,” Adams said in the press statement.

“The division is proud of the performance of students in the programme amidst the difficulties they experienced from time to time,” she said, as she lauded the performance of Dennie and James and the other honours students.

Adams told SEARCHLIGHT last week about the challenges she sees among teachers’ college students as it relates to passing math and English and some of the steps the institution is taking to help.

She said that “more than 70 per cent” of the teachers who enrolled for the associate degree for primary school teachers pass at the end of the two years, while the other 30 per cent complete the programme over time.

“… you have to pass everything to pass …” she said of the 66-credit programme, for teachers who already have an associate degree in education.


“We have a problem here with a subject called English for communication.

“… that is our main challenge. Although the student will come in with a pass in English language, they still have a problem with English for communication when they get into the college.

“It is the whole language — perhaps people are not reading enough and they don’t practise whatever is needed …”

She said the first module of English for communication includes comprehension and summary writing and the second module focuses on essay writing.

“Sometimes, you may have a person with literatures in English still fail that English for communication course on the first sitting.”

But the problem is not confined to St Vincent and the Grenadines.

“When I go to meetings for heads of teachers’ colleges across the region, people would be having problems with that course,” Adams told SEARCHLIGHT.

She further said colleges do “what colleges can do” to try to respond to the problem.

And, in response to the challenges the college’s students are having with math, Adams said that the institution has begun to offer students additional not-for-credit hours of math “to help to bolster their content knowledge.”

Asked how does the nation improve its performance in English and math, Adams said more focus will have to be placed on the primary school system, “or probably as early as early childhood.

“… because you have to improve the foundation in order to get good results at the top,” she noted.

She also said that while some Teachers’ College enrollees have CSEC passes in math, it is probably just a Grade 3 — the lowest passing grade.

“… and they get into college and then there is this fear for maths. It is like they hear maths and they pull back … So perhaps we have to develop a liking for maths at the primary school level.”

But how do the nation’s teachers effectively teach a subject if they have a fear of it?

“That’s why I say it is a cycle,” Adams said.

“Because how they were taught in the school, they come in here. Sometimes people think the students are coming out of Teachers’ College and they can’t handle maths properly or English and so on. But, it is what we get.”

The extra not-for-credit hours offered last semester, she said, was in an effort to break that cycle.


But the graduate teacher, who passed the math programme, said it seems that current primary and secondary school students seem not to be able to “function in the abstract mode of thinking”.

The teacher further said some students are not very studious.

“They like to be spoon-fed and I believe that with mathematics, you have to be involved in a lot of drill and practice.

“They must be intrinsically motivated and I believe you have to be capable of handling abstract thinking,” the graduate said.

He further observed that many students “cannot connect the mathematics in school with what they think life outside of school would be.

“They are not interested in mathematics,” the graduate teacher said. (