Basil Jarrett | Ranking the rankings
LET’S GET one thing clear right now. Michael Jordan (MJ) is the greatest basketball player ever. Period. And for the millennials whipping out their keyboards to chastise me now about LeBron James, let me just say that statistics don’t always tell...
LET’S GET one thing clear right now. Michael Jordan (MJ) is the greatest basketball player ever. Period. And for the millennials whipping out their keyboards to chastise me now about LeBron James, let me just say that statistics don’t always tell the full story. There is what we call in sports ‘the eye test’, which is essentially that visceral and emotional impact you get, not from what the statisticians or the media or Twitter says, but from what you witness with your own two eyes. So while LeBron may have more points, more rebounds and more Rogaine hair transplants than MJ, he fails the eye test over and over again when compared to ‘His Airness’. Michael Jordan’s eye test results show him changing basketball forever and truly setting the bar by which all other players are judged. He is indeed the standard: The totally unnecessary but oh-so-sweet switch from his right hand to his left against the Lakers in ‘91. The hang time game-winner against Craig Ehlo in ’89; the ‘flu game’ and the push-off that wasn’t, in the 1998 finals against Bryon Russell, all indelibly marked in the minds of sports fans across the globe. Just for the record, even my grandmother will tell you that wasn’t a push-off. MJ faked right, went left, Russell slipped, end of story she’d say.
But this isn’t a story about MJ or Lebron, or even basketball. It’s about academics, high-school academics to be exact. But I believe it is the perfect way to start this conversation on the academic rankings recently published by the Patterson Commission in its report on the state of education in Jamaica. While numbers have always told the story, this ranking does something completely different from previous scorecards. We now have what I consider to be the most comprehensive and most balanced reflection of the state of our secondary schools, taking into account everything from absolute passes to value added and, of course, the eye test.
AN IMPROVED SCORECARD
Campion College and Immaculate Conception High have consistently surpassed the eye test and ruled the roost in the EducateJA rankings for well over a decade now. No one would challenge the view that these two schools have been the standard-bearers of education in Jamaica from a purely academic performance perspective. Even Dr Patterson concurs. His report re-establishes these two academic powerhouses as numbers one and two, respectively, from the standpoint of sheer passes in external exams. For years, however, several schools had legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved, as it was felt that those numbers, and the rankings, did not adequately capture or reflect the true state of affairs at some institutions. I myself was one of its most vocal critics as I believed, as I still do, that those rankings, by focusing purely on CSEC passes with grades one and two taken at fifth form, did not adequately capture the value that high schools were providing. And did not take into full consideration the fact that some schools have an advantage purely by starting off with better raw material. In other words, it is far easier to take good students and make them great, than it is to make poor students good.
And so I was very pleased with the work that Dr Patterson and his team have done in moving the conversation on the performance of our schools another yard. (Cue social media trolls who are now about to lambast me on the performance of my own alma mater and our dismal performance in the rankings.) I am not here today to defend Jamaica College (JC). I think the results speak for themselves. For the past 18 years, JC has been outstanding in certain areas and rather poor in others, academics being one. This must be an area of extreme concern for students, staff, old boys, the school community, and most importantly, parents. But at the same time, I am also happy to see that schools such as Glenmuir High, Wolmer’s Girls, and surprise package St Jago High are finally being recognised for the true value that they have brought to their students in giving them a well-rounded education.
A STAR IS BORN
To be fair to Campion and Immaculate, however, there’s really not much they can probably do to improve their scores in the ‘value added’ category, given that the majority of students that they admit are already carrying excellent grades. After all, when you’re at 94 per cent, the most you can improve by is six percentage points. Compare that to a Merl Grove, our value added champion, who may have the more arduous task of turning 60s into 80s. That is not to say, though, that a Campion and an Immaculate could not turn 60s into 80s or 90s, but they’ve probably become a victim of their own success in that regard.
Nonetheless, the emergence of Glenmuir High as the nation’s top high school makes the very strong argument that schools can perform at the highest level even while admitting students from more modest social or academic backgrounds.
Now, the problem with rankings is that not everyone will be happy with the results. Several schools have already started to grumble that the rankings stop at 2018 and do not include the last three years, when substantial improvements could very well have been made. And because these scores are averages, it doesn’t truly answer the ‘where are we right now’ question. This may very well be true, but it comes with a few important caveats. For one, 2020 and 2021 must be marked with an asterisk and labelled as ‘The COVID Years’. Over these two years, grades could have been deflated as students struggled with online learning, or inflated as they got ‘extra help’ because of online learning. That leaves 2019 as the only legitimately comparable year out, which would still not affect any of these scores significantly. The other point, too, is that while some schools may have started to round the corner the last few years, the report has more value when viewed as a planning tool and an accurate return-on-investment analysis on education over the last 18 years. I want to congratulate the Ministry of Education and Dr Patterson’s team for finally putting out what I consider to be a thoughtful, thorough and definitive data-driven point of departure for future planning and the transformation of the education sector.
THE WAY FORWARD
The obvious question now is, where do we go from here? For starters, I would suggest that we now look away from the rankings as the sum total and most important conclusion of the 76-page document. Instead, focus on the recommendations related in particular to teaching and curriculum reform, which are given the most attention in the report. The Patterson report noted that, from a national development standpoint, our education institutions currently face a number of crises in the form of under-education of our youth, organisational and strategic incoherence, redundancy and unaccountability, and, of course, COVID-19, which has magnified the other problems.
The report also looked at important reforms needed in administrative areas, such as the selection, organisation, leadership and training of school boards and their members, noting that there is a shortage in the availability of qualified and competent representatives. The report recommended, too, that board chairs and board members should have term limits, minimum qualifications and leadership experience, and a demonstrated track record of accomplishment in the education sector. These actions, the commission proposed, will renew and refresh the school with new thought leadership, ideas and approaches.
I believe that these rankings have done a very good job of establishing a baseline for us to move forward. But as the commission noted, the best-laid plans are only as good as their implementation. In this report, we have a thorough, sound, data-driven document that gives very good guidance on the way forward for our schools. Rather than haggle over methodology or metrics, let us now move towards truly meaningful transformation in education, so that I no longer have to be schooling these youngsters about how MJ would have averaged 45 per game in today’s soft, cotton candy NBA.
Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org .