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Overcoming Education Inequality

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 22, 2020

Last Sunday 19 distinguished citizens (call them endorsees) recommended that the SEA be replaced since it no longer serves the interest of the students it is supposed to serve ("Replacing the SEA." They claim that our school system has not extricated itself from its "colonial inheritances in education." The SEA examination through which we place our students into secondary schools is outmoded. It originated in the UK in 1904, the year Joseph de Suze finished writing Little Folks Trinidad, a pioneering educational work.

The endorsees argue that there should be a smooth transition from primary to secondary school. They write: "In the elementary school, children should be tested at every grade level to see if they meet quality standards, especially in reading and mathematics. Science [teaching] should be a fixture in the curriculum." It should extend to all secondary schools and be accessible to children in both islands.

The thrust of their arguments was not sufficiently persuasive to Kelvin Baldeosingh who argued: "While the core argument—abolishing the SEA—can be empirically supported, the ancillary policy suggestions,…if implemented, are likely to worsen children's education outcomes" (Express, December 14). He quibbled as to when these children should begin to learn to read (should it be five or seven), arguing that "too much focus on academics in pre-school leads to negative outcomes later."

He says the most uninformed recommendation is "when a child in this country completes elementary school, he/she should go on to a good, high-quality secondary school." He contends that "most parents will want their children to go to the prestige schools." It did not occur to him that we should create more high-quality secondary schools.

Baldeosingh argues further that there is "no correlation between the school a child attends and academic performance. Instead, correlation runs the other way—it is when the students comprise a higher socioeconomic status (SES), higher-IQ cohort, that the school does well. This is clearly the case in Trinidad, where just 20 percent of pupils in the prestige schools are from a lower-SES background, and even those students are mostly high-IQ."

If Baldeosingh agrees the SEA should be abolished, then he should have offered recommendations to assist these "accomplished Afro-Trinbagonians" to strengthen their statement. I presume that Baldeosingh agrees that the "outcomes" of this system is detrimental to approximately 80 percent of our students, especially those from "a lower-SES background."

Baldeosingh is also aware that IQ tests embed culturally specific references that measure the expected interpretations of a student to his/her particular socio-economic environment, suggesting that the high IQ scores of the students to whom he refers reflect primarily what they may have learned in their particular social and cultural settings. An IQ test also includes linguistic and mathematical references which are not necessarily covered in all family experiences and classroom settings. Students of a lower socio-economic background who are tested on their knowledge of their social environment are likely to demonstrate as high an IQ as those in higher economic settings.

The endorsees proposed a solution to correct an anachronism in which 80 percent of our students are discarded at the age of twelve. They contend that there is an important correlation between the education a student receives and the productivity of a country's "human capital." In other words, if 80 percent of the population is not trained in modern/contemporary skills, then the society can never realize its full intellectual/economic potential. The entire society loses out economically, socially and culturally.

Baldeosingh argues that "fairness and pragmatism dictate that it is opportunities that must be equal, not outcomes." This is neither true nor possible for a child who attends St. Andrews in Maraval and another who attends Excel Primary in Beetham. The latter does not possess similar and equal opportunities at the beginning of her educational journey. The attending circumstances are different, beginning with nutrition, finance, exposure to cultural events, a comfortable place to study, exposure to additional work, behavioral expectations and what model students are expected to achieve. Necessarily, the opportunities of these two children, related directly to their socio-economic circumstances, are unequal.

Two reports from the World Bank this month found that "coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic-related school closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school aged children, including those in the Caribbean, into 'learning poverty,' meaning that they are unable to read and understand a simple text by age ten" (Express, December 15). The report also affirmed that "the huge digital divides—from connectivity to digital skills—and inequalities in the quality of parental support and home learning environments are amplifying learning inequality" (Express, December 15). Sixty-nine thousand children in T&T do not possess electronic devices to access online education (Express, December 17).

The endorsees do not need to outline every obstacle that may arise in the implementation of their proposal. This is why we have education specialists and policy makers. However, we are certain of one thing: in each age, educational systems evolve to respond to the demands of its students—that is, from the first slave school that was established in 1832 to our secondary schools today. This age calls for another approach to attack education inequality.

In "Realizing the Future of Learning" the World Bank noted: "For societies to be inclusive and fair, they need to prepare all their children to succeed as citizens and give them the tools to participate in their countries' development."

The endorsees are saying that our school system needs to deliver a high-quality education for all its students and that we should "fully embrace equity as an overall guiding goal and principle of our education policy" ("Realizing the Future of Learning"). We should compliment them for their boldness of thought and acuity of insight.

Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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