Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

In a recent letter to the Express titled “Keep the SEA exam”, a citizen, AV Rampersad, wrote that “entry is dependent on the pupil’s intellect and comprehension of the basic concepts. It gives the pupil an idea where they stand in the crowd, and makes place for improvement. Every pupil starts the exam with 100 per cent. Not everyone will pass the SEA for their first choice. C’est la vie”.

Let us dwell here for a moment. Is it really the case that all children start with 100 per cent? Well, some children have adults in the house who went to secondary school and university. Many do not. I grew up with my uncle and his wife. They sent me to preschool, which was a great gift to me because neither of them was sufficiently literate to teach me when I was in primary school. My mother had begun this by sending me to preschool at age three, before handing me over.

Within the past month, my granddaughter, age eight, who lives in the United States, made two book requests of me in our weekly Skype call. First, she said she needed three books to complete the Zoey and Sassafras series of eight, and seven books to complete the Unicorn Princess series of ten books.

In both cases, when we finished our Skype call, I simply ordered all of the requested books via Amazon, and within four days, they were on the doorstep of my daughter in Maryland. My granddaughter has hundreds of books, most of which she acquired by the medium just described. Amazon dropping off books at the door.

It turns out that my granddaughter belongs to a book club. I asked her about that, and she said it comprised three friends and herself. And these are the books they are now reading.

She has attended private schools only, for which her parents pay.

Very many children do not have circumstances that allow them to have access to books like I describe. I should say also that where my daughter lives, the nearby library allows a child to borrow nine books at a time per week. My daughter has taken advantage of this and, before Covid, had this as a weekly agenda item where my grand could pick out books of her choosing.

As to computers, my granddaughter has taught me how to share files with her, and we use this medium when I work with her online.

Now, back to AV Rampersad, who writes that “The SEA filters out the best applicants without discrimination”. He/she went on that “it is impe­rative we keep the SEA exam. Let us do what is right because it is right. That is the case for the defence”.

That view of the SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) is widely held in some quarters in this country. And, indeed, it is a good summary of the argument for those who wish that the country keep the status quo forever. The authors say the SEA “filters” the best applicants “without discrimination”.

Before I offer another point of view about this, I want to say that the idea of an exam as a “filter” for determining the life circumstances of 12-year-old children in this country is to me a quite disturbing and indeed unfortunate metaphor. It is on a mechanical level, an apt description of what we do to children here, but really, it is a model borrowed from factories where one can imagine a conveyor belt moving tin cans or plastic bottles, and there are sorters standing at strategic points, pulling of defective ones and throwing them into a bin while desirable ones are allowed to go through.

Filtering as a goal of education will not be found in any modern theory of education. In most enlightened places in the world, the aim of education is not to filter children but to enlighten them.

Filtering is accompanied by scarcity. When you filter, you are speaking of good and bad.

There is no need or reason for the State here to have education competi­tion for children age 12. There is enough time for that later on in life. What the State needs to do is provide high-quality schools in high-quality environments, peopled by high-quality teachers.

Very many of the elementary schools in this country are of poor quality. As are secondary schools.

When applied to education, filtering is a description of education that you would not find in an enlightened education journal, and you would not see coming from UNESCO. It is the language of othering—or we versus dem. It is hateful. But it will work on a visceral level here, a rum-shop level, where education correlates so highly with our politics and our social structure.

Our school choices here are good schools, which are very scarce, and bad schools. That is what we have to fix. There are very many more bad secondary schools than good ones, and no penalty for running a bad school.

We have to look to two places: first, our Constitution, and second, our Anthem where when we sing to the world what our Constitution stands for, we sing twice, “Here every creed and race find an equal place”.

What does our Constitution say about how education should be thought about here? The Education Act is a distinct chapter (39.01) of the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. Under the head “Compulsory Education”, at item 5, states: education is guaranteed “at any age between five and sixteen years and accordingly a person shall be deemed to be of compulsory school age if he has attained the age of five years and has not attained the age of sixteen years...”.

I see nothing here about a filter.

If we look away from education to health care, which like education is a public good, we will see the model to which we must aspire. There is no filter to determine where you will find a hospital bed.

Every citizen can be assured of being taken to the nearest hospital, and to equal quality care. That is how it has to be in education. High quality all around.

—Theodore Lewis is

emeritus professor of education, University of Minnesota.

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