Reframing Secondary School Selection Model

Universal Education

Does universal secondary education translate to equal opportunity for all?

At present everyone concerned about the future of education in St Lucia is aware of the academic underperformance of some of our secondary schools. This situation is even more evident in the case of new secondary schools built to effectuate universal secondary education. Progress in the form of new school plants seemed overshadowed by academic underperformance. This development has constructed a public perception of uncertainty where these schools are concerned thus making these new facilities appear cosmetic.

The recognition of a performance gap between new and established secondary schools, speaks to the existence of an education policy problem, which demands a government solution. It is into this environment of low performance that our political parties, Pegasus of school improvement – monetary subsidies to parents (as opposed to a sustainable economic and social intervention) come charging in. From a footnote in the political platforms, monetary subsidies have become the most welcome intervention of the millennium, particularly to the disadvantaged. The data bears me out, successive government administrations boast of thousands of dollars handed out to parents to compensate for secondary school students’ economic difficulties. The publicity of this input gives it the appearance of the centerpiece of compensatory efforts, although no empirical data exists to evaluate the educational output.

The reality is that the solution to academic underperformance is a great deal more than a political fancy. Obviously stakeholders can connect a public policy problem like school failure to either government action or inaction. Government therefore must dismiss all doubt that whatever policy it implements will not simply serve as an anesthetic but will have a real qualitative and quantitative influence on the problem. It is obvious that our new secondary schools though meeting the objective of facilitating universal access are underperforming academically, and it is not for lack of trying. The patchwork of interventions, e.g. child friendly schools, afterschool programmes, bus subsidies, etc. simply do not get to the root of the problem.  What went wrong? How did the framing of underachievement occur in the new secondary schools? Most prescriptions for school improvements seemed to have focused on more or less of the same – more monitoring and supervision of teachers, more contact time, more tests, less punitive interventions, more counseling programmes. Along with these prescriptions, cloaked in a common sense assessment of the new secondary schools’ under subscription and academic decline, Tech Voc education as a new curriculum agenda is presented as a necessity for broad school reform. All the while the consequences of honouring unregulated parental choice remained obscured. Notwithstanding the benefits of these reforms and prescriptions, overlooked in the alliance between universal access and the secondary school selection and placement method was the germ of the present environment of academic underperformance in new secondary schools — the composition of the student body.  As a result of this oversight the hope that new secondary schools could move to becoming analogues of the established secondary schools was soon shattered.

It is possible then to surmise that the distribution of students in secondary schools in terms of academic capital is skewed in a manner that will not promote the viability of new secondary schools. This summation points to the need to reengineer the secondary school selection and placement model, thereby reconstructing students’ experiences of it. To understand this assumption it is necessary to advert to what has happened in terms of reforms in the current secondary schools selection and placement model. One would discover that there was no significant shift in the secondary school selection and placement policy, from its inception leading up to the realization of universal secondary education. More specifically, there was no decisive policy shift to include an overt action for narrowing the academic performance gap between secondary schools. The current secondary school selection model tends to emphasize one extreme, choice, without its balancing perspective, regulation.

This logic is analogous to supplying high quality raw materials to factory A and low quality of the same materials to factory B and expecting the same high quality output from both. St Lucia’s educational milestone – USE and our educational showpiece – new secondary schools, have therefore not found easy acceptance among all, where the conversation encompasses academic performance, equity and labeling of secondary schools. Only the established schools with a tradition of academic excellence are spoken about with avidity by the public. Parental choice as a result is still shaped by the definitions these conversations imply. The transition towards USE without reforming the secondary school selection model can therefore be blamed for establishing a mirage of equity and choice.

Disconcerting as regulating secondary school selection may sound to some, a strategy must be found to include some high performing students into the new secondary schools. Nothing less than this intervention will narrow the performance divide between the new secondary schools and their established higher performing counterparts. This view does not detract from the recognition that the current prescriptions for school improvement have their merits. However, in schools where the majority of students are deficient in cultural capital and lack the academic prerequisites,  these prescriptions only tinker the edges of our nation’s failing schools problem.

Within the context of the present secondary school selection model, differences in school ratings by the public tend to surface along a range of insidiously institutionalized ascribed ranks. These ranks, now more than ever, are undeniably connected with the labels and the student composition of secondary schools. Any attempt to help underrated and undersubscribed schools gain academic muscle must therefore focus on the disequilibrium in the academic and cultural capital of our secondary school student population. Much has been done through Common Entrance Examinations to foster a climate of democracy in terms of access to secondary schools. More however must be done to avoid the apparent inescapability of inequitable student composition between secondary schools.  Educators and policy makers must cease being evasive. They must admit that the rating of one school over the other is obvious. They must admit that it has cultivated a built-in discrimination in society through its norms and actions which are the rules for school selection. These norms and actions inform parents and prospective students about which schools are successful.  The influence of the adepts of such norms is certainly a common denominator in structuring the self-fulfilling prophecy leading to underperformance in some secondary schools.

It is obvious that the trend in oversubscription to established secondary schools and the contraposition in the case of new secondary schools exists. We can surmise therefore that parental choice is instrumental in the structuring of inequitable student composition among secondary schools. This recognition therefore draws attention to the complexities in ensuring heterogeneity (in terms of academic prerequisite) of students assigned to secondary schools without regulating the secondary school selection process. The idea of meritocratic competition  among secondary schools is therefore challenged for want of a regulated secondary school selection and assignment model.

It can be argued that the current secondary school selection and assignment model extols the virtues of democracy and equality of opportunity. Nonetheless, it also raises the moral question of equity in terms of student composition among schools, which must compete and be evaluated as equals. Test scores and parental choice are the key determinants of access to secondary school. This being the case, the argument for meritocratic competition and comparison of secondary school performance within the current framework of secondary school selection suggests a rather ill fitting mosaic. It is the degree and reputation of academic capital that determines the power holders among secondary schools. The weaker the academic capital of a secondary school, the lower its ranking by the public. The public ranking and the insidious ranking by the Ministry of Education is evidenced by the article: Top Common Entrance achievers receive bursaries. (Top class Sept/Oct 2012) Notably all the top achievers’ first choices were the oversubscribed high performing secondary schools. Revealingly, school choice and labels are framed by the overall academic performance of the secondary schools. It can also be asserted that the academic performance and the consequential ranking and labels associated with these secondary schools act as market signals, which continue to influence parental choice. Thus the cycle of high performance of the established secondary schools is maintained. This cycle highlights how the impact of choice falls unevenly on new secondary schools. The perpetuation of this cycle also points to how policy makers tend to underestimate the impact of policies on people’s thinking and behaviour.

The Ministry of Education’s adherence to the view that secondary schools are not ranked even when parental choices suggest the contrary, is evidence of the above stated tendency on the part of policy makers. Maintenance of this view has constructed a secondary education system that is functional within a dysfunctional logic. The results of the CSEC examinations demonstrate the fallacy of the equality of academic status of secondary schools argument. The travails of our new schools are quite obvious. I however empathize with our policymakers. One must agree, admitting that schools are ranked is tantamount to speaking to the impact of the compositional effect of the student body. This admission would imply the labeling and ranking of schools and more specifically students by policymakers who do not want to present themselves to the public as segregationist. In this case policy makers are faced with an insoluble contradiction. Whipsawed by political expediency, reality and moral responsibility, the path of least resistance has been to present our secondary school system as egalitarian. Interestingly, this gives a curious side-light on the rationale for implementing partial zoning — a positive move intended to change the landscape of secondary school selection and student assignment.

Editor’s note: See the continuation of this story in Saturday’s STAR Newspaper.

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