Growing up in Jamaica, I’d always heard that our level of education was above that of the United States, and that wasn’t limited to any particular level. First, we were always criticized for sending our children to school way too early. Maybe we did, because my own son started wearing uniform and sitting in class before he was even two years of age. I wanted to send him to the nursery section of the institution, but the administrators encouraged me to place him in the pre-kindergarten area instead since he would be at the institution everyday, anyway. I didn’t see any harm in it, nor did any ensue.
Maybe it was a cultural thing-we sent our children out too early, but what harm did that actually do? There is none that I can think of. See, the great philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, believed that everyone was born with a blank slate, to fill it and write our own stories as we grow. While other countries, such as the United States, believed that children should be allowed to develop to a certain point before engaging in the rigors of a school curriculum, us Jamaicans, and perhaps other persons occupying other islands within the Caribbean region, believed that the earlier they started, the better they would be, since they would be exposed to much when they are most ripe for the learning.
I remember, in the sixth grade, at the Primary level (back in my time), we all had to take the Common Entrance Examination, the scores from which would allow us to matriculate to particular schools at the Secondary level. In Jamaica, we didn’t, and still don’t just matriculate to the schools closest to us; we had a thing, not only for competition, but for pushing our students, sometimes, arguably, a little too much. Students competed for spots at coveted schools, and the higher the scores, the better the chances of attending the school of your choice. That Common Entrance Examination was scrapped, a few years after I was subjected to it, for the more rigorous Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). Students scoring the highest grades were placed at the most prestigious High Schools, and believe me, it didn’t matter where anyone lived, or how much money their parents had – the students, despite the everyday stresses of extended and weekend classes, pressed on, with their eyes coveting those limited positions at the top schools.
As parents, we often complained about the long hours our children were subjected to-the backpacks laden with books from what seemed like every field. They were learning things in the sixth grade my generation wasn’t introduced to until the ninth grade. Although I sometimes hated the pressure placed on the children, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much they knew, in Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. When my son was in the third grade, his spelling list was atrocious at best: he was given twenty words to study every weekend for a spelling test on Monday, and the words depended on what was being taught at the time. So, for example, if they were learning about the respiratory system (which they did-in the third grade) he would get words to study like esophagus, gullet, trachea, bronchia, and the other parts that made up the system. Sometimes I was tempted to argue about it, but it amazed me that he never took more than an hour to remember them. Sometimes, even before he started memorizing them, he already knew half of the words.
Our children are far more capable of learning than we can imagine, or give them credit for. In their early years they are open, and their minds are fresh. Their mental muscles are like rubber, and they stretch and bend, never breaking and always assuming their original form. Any limits placed on them are what we, as adults, assign to them.
At the University level, it’s no different. We are pushed, poked and prodded. We are thrown into an environment where we are assumed to be intelligent, and any assistance that can be gotten is that which is sought after. There is no faculty chasing us to remind us about exam dates; they are posted and the onus is on each individual to search it out. There are no seminars or emails sent to remind students about course or degree requirements. We were told from day one-we needed to read for our degrees. That taught initiative. Exams are also a big event, and are conducted at specific venues, with tight security, too many invigilators, one for each row of students, which can amount to several rows adding up to hundreds of students, depending on the courses. Nothing other than stationery is allowed in the examination hall, no cell phone, no calculator with memory features, and sometimes you can’t even leave mid-way to use the restroom. At the end, pens drop when the examinations moderator calls time. And you better they will fail you if you keep writing after the announcement. I almost lost my paper once when I tried to finish a sentence.
Much emphasis is placed on discipline, hard work, and perseverance. Not everyone in Jamaica is fortunate to have gone through it all. Of course, there will be those students who have little to no support from their parents, or who do not have that internal drive to excel, and who inevitably fall by the wayside. But for those who have gone through the system, the product is excellence.
A friend of mine left High School and migrated to England. There she started college, and she was surprised when she got the same kind of education she had already received in the tenth grade. This by no means is meant to discredit the British education system, since Jamaica is a likeness of that country, but at that time, we were more advanced than even England. Another friend of mine had a son who migrated when he was in the ninth grade. He was barely getting above a C average. When he started school in Atlanta, he was placed on the honor roll from the first grading period, and eventually got awarded a scholarship.
Now, those have been stories I’ve been privy to-second hand accounts of the differences in the educational level in Jamaica and other developed countries. Recently I moved to the United States, where I started attending a University in New York to pursue a Graduate degree. I live in Bridgeport, Connecticut, so my nine-year old son attends a public Elementary School close to our home, and I can now testify that the accounts I’ve heard are true. I was impressed when I learned about Chrome books and learning apps such as Myon, Extra Math’s and Moby Max that my son regularly uses at school to enhance Mathematics and Language capabilities. After all, in Jamaica most schools just had one computer lab, where you might get just a one hour class each week. My excitement quickly died down when I saw the work he was getting – simple phonics, sentence formation, simple comprehension.
As for me, University life has never been easier; attend classes, read a chapter, easy breezy exam. But that’s just me, it would seem. For my first exam, Clinical Assessment, I was astonished to see that it was a multiple-choice exam. In Jamaica, we didn’t get a lot of multiple choice exams, and we definitely don’t issue them at the Masters’ or Graduate level. The exam started at 6 in the evening, and I was out of there in 20 minutes. Personally, I felt like it was too easy. My sentiments extended to other courses that examined students in the same way. But it would seem I was virtually alone in my beliefs; on one particular exam, out of 50 questions, I got 1 wrong. The answers seemed so obvious, but when I checked the grades afterwards, I was the only one with a grade like that. Most of the other students got half of the questions wrong. I began to realize that they didn’t see the exams the same way I did. The questions appeared easier to me because I came from a culture where, to pass an exam, you had to really study, for hours, and for days. And still sometimes, you would fail. I did the same here, but quickly realized I didn’t need as much effort. I still go through all the course material, but not as rigorously.
The U.S. Department of Educations has recently released the results of Math performance across the 35 Developed countries of the world: The United States is ranked 31, a fall from 26. I don’t have to ask why, neither am I surprised. Children are not getting dumber, as the news article implies; they are just being taught less. The school administrators, or Boards, don’t believe in pushing students above and beyond what they are currently achieving, and what is being inherited is a culture of convenience and mediocrity. Children, and adults too, seem to be going through the motions by just going to school but really learning nothing. Oftentimes, I feel cheated out of a real Graduate School education, that is far too expensive. This is a lesson too costly even for me.
So yes, I come from Jamaica, an impoverished and underdeveloped, or so called third world nation, with a population of 2.5 million people. And no, we don’t teach our students using the latest gadgets and gizmos. But we have a rich education system that has produced some of the greatest minds in the world today, making contributions in commerce, science, law and politics. We may not have the state of the art equipment U.S schools can boast about, nor the well-kept schoolyards. Jamaica is behind in many areas, and sometimes seems to be slipping back into the dark ages. But the one light that shines brighter than any other, is our educational system, and there is nothing third world about that.