St Maarten’s Education: An American’s Impressions–Part 2

University of St Maarten

University of St Maarten

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…

#educ_dr

 

Dangerous Speakers

It’s been another long time since I’ve blogged at all. Here’s something that I simply cannot ignore. It’s a post I shared on Facebook, so anyone following me there will remember reading it. Right now I’m a bit too bogged down to do more than share an experience I wrote about elsewhere. It deals with seminars that are presented by people who do not know their topic–in this case, special education in general and dyslexia in particular. Sadly, out of perhaps 50 or 60 attendees, 2 were “just parents” (who were the intended audience to start with) and the rest were equally diviided between practicing teachers (some of whom I recognized and know they are talented teachers struggling with special needs children in their own classes) and pre-service teachers who are anxious to learn more about dyslexia. Well, you can figure out the rest of the problem. I’m also going to post this on my other blog site to widen the audience. This is really a sad situation that is becoming sadder. If you want to read about any chatter from my Facebook friends related to this, I believe I publically shared my observations; hopefully you can see the responses as well. I’m Dr.EllieM on Facebook, and have a page called EMiller Education Consulting. Feel free to comment here or on the other venues. Right now, I’m not in the States; I’m in the new country of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean. Sint Maarten is the Dutch half of the island; St. Martin is the French half (If you ask a St. Martiner their nationality, you will always get “French.”).

Again, this is the start of a whole new phase for me. I will be using the educational system in Sint Maarten as an example of what politics can do to education in a country with a total population of roughly 50,000. And yes, that’s tens of thousands.

So… Have to share this: As you know, I have been trying to understand the educational system here on Sint Maarten, specifically special education. I’ve been volunteering services in what in California would be called a non-public school–a privately run school supported by public education funds. Because of the public funding, the school I am “helping” has to follow all curricular work as set out by the government for fully public schools. Wow, am I learning a lot, but that’s not what I want to share. What I want to share sheds some light on why education here is so screwed up.
Last night, my neighbor and I attended (or maybe “visited” is the better word) a seminar on dyslexia in the Caribbean. The event, intended for parents, was populated with teachers and teachers-in-training here on the island. Only 2 parents were in the audience that filled the room so thoroughly that we ended up sitting on a table at the back of the room with several other attendees. (I was execting the tables to collapse at any moment, since there were about 8 of us sitting “Indian style” in two rows, as there was no floor space to stand.) The speaker claims to have taught special education for 20 years, and spent the summer island hopping to become an “expert” in dyslexia. Since schools are shut down during the six-week summer break, and since there were many islands visited, I can only surmise that the expertise was gained primarily from seminars. Deon, my neighbor, has a daughter who was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other problems that contributed to her learning difficulties, and–since the special education services on the island are minimal (if you can call some of them services at all)–his children and their mother moved back to South Africa so that the daughter could reap the benefits of a real special education program. So Deon knows quite a bit about dyslexia, learning disabilities and difficulties, ADD/ADHD, etc. OK. That’s background info on him, and most of you already know mine. So here’s the story–a really sad one, if you ask me.
Within 5 minutes of listening to this dynamic speaker give her schpiel, Deon became very restless and stood up as well as he could next to the table. By then, I was already reviewing my notes on a child I’ve been observing. But he didn’t say anything about leaving, so I just kept organizing notes. Then I thought I misheard an explanation about dyslexic children being unable to translate a photograph into anything more than a two-dimentianal depiction. Since raising my hand to ask a question was impossible, I just blurted out, “Excuse me, I was writing and may have missed something. Are you still talking about dyslexia?” She responded, “Yes, that’s how dyslexic children see the world.” That was it. I thanked her for her response, apologized again for the interruption, closed my notebook and stuffed it in my purse, told Deon I needed to go out and have a smoke, if I could wade through the sea of seated educators/future educators. Deon said he had no further reason to stay, and would I mind going home? All I could do was feel grateful that I he, too, had had enough.
From almost the first sentence that came out of the speaker’s mouth, it was clear that she had no idea what she was talking about–not in her capacity of general special education teacher, and least of all in her “expertise” in dyslexia. In that first 5 minutes, more misinformation was delivered than even Fox News could spew. (Apologies to those who enjoy Fox News; I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Stewart, Colbert, and Maher critiquing their news items.) Yet, the teachers and pre-service teachers ate up every word, because 1) she was an outstanding and engaging presenter; and 2) the need by island educators for information on any special education is so great that they will lap up anything.
This is how Sint Maarten operates. That a total charlatan can misinform the very people who are responsible for helping children with special needs is an affront to education anywhere in the free world. The school system here–despite many wonderful and caring teachers who are limited in what they can do by a frigging script (!) that must be followed to the letter if the teachers want to continue teaching–scrapped the plan instituted by The Netherlands long before the Sint Maarten gained its independence on 10/10/10, and has yet to publish anything online that addresses policies, by-laws, objectives and goals, or even a solid vision statement. I personally went to an agency the other day to learn what its role is in special education placement, and was told that there is nothing in writing. When I asked for copies of the forms that are used for referral, I was told that each school had been sent 10 copies a year ago, and that I should procure one from them. When I asked how long a referral takes, I was told that REFERRALS ARE ONLY ACCEPTED IN NOVEMBER!!!!! A bit more discussion yielded the information that the department doesn’t have any real idea of what services it can actually provide and how decisions are made!!!
The Parliament last week finally passed a balanced budget. Any guesses where the money eventually came from? Had I mentioned previously that the Ministry of Education and Other Stuff could not provide an audit trail for where Dutch funds specifically earmarked for education had gone?
Is there any doubt about why I, even as an outsider, am so frustrated?
Feel free to make up your own mind about education–and specifically special education–in Sint Maarten. As for me, last night I decided that I will very shortly becvome a thorn in the side of this educational system. Time to brush off the old college political activist loafers. For better or worse, Everyone who has anything to do with schools on this island will know my name before I’m either kicked off the island or leave on my own. I am all about education. More, I am all about the education of children, especially those who have special needs–even if the need is merely for a little boost of self confidence.
Sint Maarten Ministry of Education (and other things), you stand warned.

Duncan to Congress: Giving States Flexibility is Working | ED.gov Blog | Eleanore’s Ramblings…

Duncan to Congress: Giving States Flexibility is Working | ED.gov Blog | Eleanore’s Ramblings….

Yes, this is a repost from another blog site, originally from the Department of Education blog site at http://ed.gov/blog.  This particular post caught my eye because it speaks to a more local level of control over appropriate educational programming, based on each state’s specific educational needs.  Through participation in the Common Core of Data (CCD) via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, at http://nces.ed.gov/ccd), the comparison of learned skills continues so that states monitor their students’ educational achievements against those of students in other states, but they do so differently than was originally proscribed by NCLB.  Unlike in NCLB which stressed a single test to measure progress across the nation, a program of how and what is taught and assessed is developed locally, by administrators and officials who know their population best.

#educ_dr