A couple of months ago, I began to address the topic of education in St Maarten–specifically, special education (see previous post). At the time, I was going to review my notes, as well as check the local news for updated information. What I discovered over the next few days was that there was very little education-related news, and that there were no promised updates on the government web site. The official government pages do not contain much more than department contact information. [Click here for what passes as the official policy information page. (There are no public links beyond this page in either English or Dutch.)]
My attempts to learn more about official updates to education policy–or even news–have been rather futile. Except for a few special activities at specific schools–school or student awards, student activities, special events, charitable contribution presentations, etc.–information related to general elementary and secondary education policies and other government-related information has not appeared in local newspapers or government web pages for quite some time. Thus, what I have learned about education here in St Maarten comes primarily from “old” public and government information, much of which was uncovered during my original interest in the country’s education system; and through general conversation with island residents, both “recent” and “native.”
Here is what I have learned since my last post. Topics include general policy issues, ministry responsibilities, special education isolation, education funding, disappearance of “special education” language, teacher training, and “NCLB-like” programming policy.
- There is much vague language in what apparently passes for educational policies in publicly available documentation. In fact, this information appears to be limited to the “about” page of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs. There appear to be no policy additions or modifications to the description of educational services on official Parliament ministry pages, except for some minor additions in Dutch which can only be found with much “digging.” Noteworthy here is that, although Dutch is the official language of the country of St Maarten, the lingua franca is English, as a very large portion of the population speaks Spanish, French, Tagalog, various dialects of India and Asia, etc., in home and community. Thus, the majority of the population can neither read nor comment on what little official education policy information is available because such policy is available only in the Dutch language. It should further be noted that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs is the only cabinet department that had not made an English language version of their policies available until recently, and that–to date–the “policy” is more of a wish list of overly-generalized education department “mission statements” and objectives.
- Although one of the mission statements of the Ministry of Education (etc.) clearly addresses alignment of education with Dutch and international norms and practices, the lack of explicit language addressing special education services is like a black hole in the center of one’s living room where the coffee table used to be. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because the goals and objectives also encompass the “culture, youth and sports affairs,” all of which may or may not be directly linked to educational outcomes per se. That no “Oxford comma” is present between “youth” and “sports” is also interesting, since–until recently–the version of English language instruction in St Maarten was British rather than American. What makes this interesting the disproportionately large financial resources that go to “culture” and “youth and sports” (or even “youth” and “sports”) as compared to resources budgeted for education. Since special education services are expensive, the lack of explicit language allows each individual school to offer or ignore resources to students with special needs. In a private chat with the current Minister of Education, Patricia Lourens, I learned that her estimate of special needs students in public education is closer to 40% than my church-affiliated school estimate of 20% to 25%. If Minister Lourens’ estimate is correct, then there is good reason to require that many special education services be available within the regular classroom. However, this would also require substantially better training for teachers through the local university, which attempts to offer special education “specialization” at the baccalaureate level as two courses, roughly equivalent to 6 credits or fewer at an American or Canadian university. (More on teacher preparation below.)
- A school building originally slated to become a stand-alone school for behaviorally (and socially or emotionally) disturbed students continues to stand empty. Vacancy appears to be due to some disagreement as to who should administer the school–one of the numerous religious affiliations with elementary and/or secondary facilities, or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs (official public/free education provider). That upgrades to the school whose purpose is to provide education to learning disabled students has been tentatively stopped may indicate that the government has plans to expand special education; or it may indicate that one of the country’s church-affiliated schools has “won” oversight of the building and the program(s) to be offered there.
- Education funding has once again been cut severely for a variety of political and economic (openly legal or corruption-driven) reasons, including loss of tax revenue–but the latter will be discussed at some future time. Interestingly, a non-academics oriented high school has recently been awarded public funds that were “withheld” by the Ministry of Education (etc.) despite parliamentary budgeting for these funds. The local court apparently felt that it was illegal to cut funds from an already existing government budget.
- The topic of special education appears to have all but vanished from any dialog related to public responsibility, so much so that the single school for learning disabled youth, the Prins Willem Alexander School (PWA), has not been mentioned in the press for months. Until the beginning of the current school year, special education services were provided by this single school site officially and specifically reserved for learning disabled students. The problems with the PWA are that 1) the classrooms are overloaded with students presenting with behavioral and emotional issues that cannot be addressed within regular education; 2) the average class size is reportedly 20; and 3) teachers have not trained to provide special education services. Other than the worst cases of learning or behavioral/emotional difficulties, special needs students are expected to be handled within the regular classroom with some support from individuals whose official function is to serve as liaisons between school and home. The reality is that this latter group tends to serve instead as individual or small-group tutors, often with responsibilities that go far beyond the official job description. This is especially true of church- or foundation-supported but publicly funded schools.
- Teacher training and experience are inadequately defined by the Ministry’s education policy, allowing private and church-supported schools to hire as teachers individuals who are straight out of high school/secondary-level education institutions, without a single post-secondary (college or university level) credit to their resumes. Granted, once hired, the individual must register in a teacher preparation program and show continual progress toward credentialing/certification. Teacher qualification does not require the attainment of a bachelors degree, especially at the elementary level (to be honest, I am not sure that a bachelors degree is required for secondary level teaching, either, as information is not readily available). Other islands in the Caribbean have grown to appreciate the skills and knowledge base associated with teacher training through programs leading to a baccalaureate degree–especially those programs that include liberal arts as part of the curriculum–but I believe that education is not as important a topic in St Maarten as in larger Caribbean countries.
- Despite apparent public documents in place prior to St Maarten’s declaration of independence from The Netherlands Antilles (“10/10/10”), teaching continues to be done to prepare elementary school students for official grade-level year-end exams and the “FBE” Exit Exams given in the final year of primary level schooling (equivalent to what in the US would be sixth-grade). The testing and education policies for which the testing was created more closely resemble US No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies than anything else I have encountered in international education standards and practices. Since, in the US, almost every one of the 50 states has elected to return to federally approved state-developed curricula–implying that NCLB did not meet local education needs–the success of the current (and two decades old) Dutch-established education system will be interesting to further observe and evaluate. Observation might be entertaining, as even the Dutch have recently declared the parent of these practices to be a grave mistake.
What is becoming more and more clear to me as I interact with the citizens of this country is that parents are becoming more accepting of causes other than home for their child’s learning difficulties (specific learning disabilities, dyslexia and discalculia, attention disorders such as ADD and ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, brain trauma, behavioral/emotional disturbances, etc.) and are asking why services to address such issues are not directly provided for their children.
It is unclear to me whether the lack of information related to education–especially education policy–is due to lack of further action because of funding or time constraints, the absence of forward movement, or the upcoming parliamentary elections which are tentatively scheduled for late August. As with many matters political, sometimes it is better to do nothing before elections and stand on one’s old record than risk statements and/or actions that may be deemed as sensitive or unpopular. However, candidates and incumbents for office should consider that not all their citizens are as willing as they were in the past to simply vote for the familiar names and faces. The younger voters are questioning whether their needs might be better served by political representatives who appear willing to be more responsive to the constituencies they would represent.
More on St Maarten education soon…