Facilitator’s Blog: Carol Watson Williams

Let me wish all the members of our community a very productive and special 2011.

We have started the year on a sober note, coming from the high of the December launch of our Community to the reality that there is much work to be done to improve basic education for all our children.

The speaker at our launch, Earl Phalen really took the opportunity to reinforce the importance of working with children from birth. In his very insightful lecture he shared with us how his non-profits, Read-Out-loud and Summer Advantage provide the help children and parents need to ensure that they can read at grade level by the time they complete their basic education. One of the more riveting stats he quoted was the 30 million word gap! What is that? Essentially, he used data from the USA to show that children who are read to and spoken to on a regular basis from birth have heard 30 million MORE words by age 3-4, than those who have not had that rich experience. That is a HUGE gap. I am sure that if we had comparable data here in Jamaica, the gap would be just as large. When children are so far behind at such an early age, the odds are really stacked against them ever catching up.

The one simple lesson is that parents, family and caregivers really give children an invaluable start by reading and communicating with them from day one. This is a simple, tried, tested and proven way to develop literacy and communication skills. We know this and have had programmes, such as the Roving Caregivers, which have tried to promote this home based early literacy strategy with some impressive success. Can we get the Early Childhood Commission, UNICEF, Parenting Partners and others on board to widen such programmes so more parents can hear the word? Some, I am sure, will heed it!

The New Year brings for many students and their teachers and families a whole new round of preparation for exams such as the Grade Four Literacy Test. The performance in this literacy test has been stagnant for some time, hovering somewhere around 70% mastery. The flip side –- the 30 % non-mastery rate- is the real concern. What is the plan to move our children from non-mastery to mastery? Certainly it cannot be that almost one-third of Jamaican children are simply unable to read at grade level! The Ministry of Education and school leaders have tried several approaches to change this, but with only marginal success. The mastery rates fluctuate, but show no sustained improvement.

Earl told us about 'the summer loss', and shared with us data which says that low income children loose more of their cognitive ability over the summer than their more well-off classmates. He noted that his programme, Summer Advantage, is one of the interventions which school districts all over the USA are now using to help stem this loss in the summer holiday. Community members will recall that Jamaica used a summer strategy, unsuccessfully, to assist the children who failed to achieve mastery in the Grade Four Literacy Test. Perhaps it's time for us to begin looking afresh at how to use the summer, but with new thinking, new plans, new goals, new approaches, to move that 30 percent, or the almost 14,000 children whose academic, social and economic futures are at risk.

Let's keep the conversation going in 2011.