MAKING A DIFFERENCE THROUGH EDUCATION: PURPOSE, POLICY & PRACTICE
PURPOSE, POLICY & PRACTICE
Feature Address to the
Dr. Didacus Jules
CXC Registrar & CEO
Jamaica, June 2011
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MAKING A DIFFERENCE THROUGH EDUCATION: PURPOSE, POLICY &
AN EXTREME REALITY CHECK
So we are here to have a conversation about how we
make a difference through education and we must
necessarily interrogate issues of purpose, policy and
practice. For me this ought to be a journey of thought and conscience leading to
a renewed sense of urgency about why we do what we do, the principles
governing our actions and the things that we must do.
Often we are only jolted from the comfort of our complacency when a more
startling wake up call or a juxtaposition of extreme possibilities opens up a
different window of perception on our reality. Here is a CNN news item of June
A man drowns while rescuers stand by hamstrung by policy. A worst possible
case scenario framed as callously insensitive and illogical because of the senseless
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loss of a human life. But it encapsulates in an extreme nutshell what happens in
practice when policy loses a sense of purpose. There are many threads that
need to be picked up here. First responders prevented by a policy which says that
they should not go into the water; budget cuts which remove the capability of the
units to effectively respond; the absolute loss of human sensibility, the
abandonment of accountability and the emasculation of any individual sense of
responsibility or initiative.
And the fundamental questions we - policy makers and influencers and educators
- must ask ourselves: are we spectators on the educational shore viewing the loss
of lives and futures? And if so, how many more must die?
Policy is a very frequently used word in educational
discourse in the Caribbean today but an analysis of its
usage reveals many different meanings. Hogwood and
Gunn (1984) have codified these multiple meanings.
Sometimes we speak of policy as an expression of general purpose or a desired
state of affairs; sometimes we reference it as specific proposals; occasionally we
mean refer to it as formal authorization of a governmental direction and we also
categorize it as a program.
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Notwithstanding these variations, we have a strong intuitive understanding that
educational policy generally references the expressed principles, parameters and
strategic direction that govern the conduct of education.
Policy can be formally expressed through various channels of declaration – in
speeches, in parliamentary or policy position papers, in strategy and planning
documents, in budgetary instruments. Policy can also be informally implied
through actions undertaken in response to situations or initiatives which emerge
in an evolutionary search for answers or quietly expressed through actions taken
below the public radar.
According to Brinkerhoff and Cosby (2002) our understanding and practice of
policy has emerged through 3 waves of evolution:
1. First generation policy analysis which largely relied on economic models
and asserted that the fundamental difference made by education was in
the preparation of human capital. Bowles & Gintis marked the high point in
the deconstruction of this paradigm.
2. Second generation analysis which embraced
institutional economics and political economy and
the interplay between state, market and civil
3. The third generation assimilated the lessons
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of the 1990s and posited policy reform as a dynamic process involving a
complex interplay between macro-economic, sectoral and governance
reforms with outcomes that can only be imperfectly predicted or
Consistent with this conceptual evolution, our own understanding of policy in the
Caribbean has also moved from a public perception of it as a highly technical
matter under the purview of experts to an appreciation of the importance and
impact of policy in framing the mandate, capabilities, and strategic outcomes in
many specific arenas of our daily lives.
The sphere of education is one of those areas in which public policy impacts
almost every household and in which the dynamic between interest groupings
and stakeholders is most complex and varied. This is best expressed in the
popular slogan that “education is everybody’s business”. As democratic practice
becomes more rooted in any society, the obligations of accountability increase
and the modalities for public engagement in policy discourse and formulation also
become more varied and institutionalized.
In many respects the directional strength of policy is related to the strength and
power of the state itself. In weak or failed states, policy of any kind is
characterized by arbitrary fiat (unconnected to any national developmental
agenda), ineffective or non-existent enforcement capability, and feeble
implementation mechanisms. In strong states, policy is highly ideological
(meaning strongly expressive of the organizing principles that it seeks to uphold
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and entrench) and closely articulated with the national developmental agenda;
there are strong (usually legislative or regulatory) vehicles of enforcement and
well defined mechanisms of implementation. The degree of implantation of
democratic tradition and practice in a strong state will determine the extent to
which citizens are able to inflect public policy in any sphere. Just last month we
were able to engage here in Jamaica with the Finns on their experience in
education and it is interesting to note that a distinguishing feature of their success
in education is the paramountcy of citizenship/parental rights and responsibilities.
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Purpose is defined as a raison d’etre; an intended
outcome or desired result; determination and
I have repeatedly argued in recent times for a fundamental rethinking of
education in our contemporary Caribbean. We are at a decisive historical
crossroad facing unprecedented challenges. We
stand at the intersection where the broad vista of
globalization crosses with the open road of
technological possibility but the perception of the
path is complicated by the convolutions of crisis and
contraction and our societal resolve is weakened by
the ravages of drugs, and the erosion of family and community.
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Rethinking education necessarily involves the definition of purpose. What is the
purpose of education in this historical epoch in the face of contemporary
challenges in our Caribbean? Definition of purpose will provide a sense of
direction. In many respects education policy in our region is still stuck in the
second generation paradigm which sees education in a neo-liberal light – that
fundamentally asserts its connection to economy and production and sees its
purpose as being largely about the preparation for work. Even a cursory
examination of international trends reveals that while the role of education in
providing the human resource requirements for economic growth is accepted
logic, there is increasing recognition of the imperative of affective dimension. An
array of social problems – from intolerance to drug abuse to spiraling criminality
to the meltdown of social values – have punctuated the importance of education
in shaping people.
Education is not only about producing workers and developing capacity for the
economy. It is equally about the cultivation of the human spirit; about the
nurturing of sensibilities; about local consciousness with global transcendence.
This is not only a Caribbean imperative as the calls for this reconceptualization are
becoming more vociferous. Konidari 2011 puts it succinctly thus:
“What we need is a total re-conception and
re-construction of the educational reality. It
is evident that a system that has been
consciously conceived in order to satisfy
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precise needs and goals can no longer serve the quality model that
education needs to survive. It is also evident that a society that
denies its political role over its economic growth cannot hope for
quality education or any substantial reform. It is also evident that
education results reflect larger problems and inequalities in societies;
schools cannot overcome all the inequities and problems around
In this business, purpose is vital because omission is as impactful as commission.
It is not simply about what we do but equally importantly about what we fail to
do. (I recall with some interest that in my Catholic school socialization, we were
taught in the rite of confession to seek remission of sins – “for what we have done
and what we have failed to do”). Without a clear sense of purpose we run the
danger of being driven by the immediacy of the problems which beset us rather
than a strategic formulation of where we want to be. It’s
the old saying that sometimes when you are up to your neck
in alligators, it’s easy to forget that your original intention
was to drain the swamp.
Inaction on problems can arise either from the fact that
their true dimension is not fully apprehended at the time or from the fact that
they just don’t seem important enough to address in the face of competing
priorities. And lost in the maelstrom of competing problems, these omissions can
carry lethal future consequences.
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The situation in early childhood stimulation for the
0-3 cohort and early childhood development for
the 3-5 age group is a perfect example. The latest
figures reveal that no more than 40% of the 0-5
age cohort enjoys access to Early Childhood
development. There is little sense of urgency
about this crisis because in the region we have come to accept the false premise
that early childhood education does not matter as much. And we continue in this
fallacy despite the increasingly voluminous evidence that early years stimulation
matters a great deal and that it constitutes the most decisive period of brain
development and cognitive capacity. It will be a grave sin of omission to continue
to ignore the deficit in ECD on the excuse of limited resources. Failure to act at
that level is creating handicaps for performance at later levels; through our failure
to provide access 60% of our children are starting the first leg of the relay of life
handicapped. Ever wonder why the most ambitious effort in Early Childhood in
the United States was called Headstart?
In fact, the challenges and limitations that confront us is all the more reason for
the elaboration of unambiguous policy. The harder the road and the more
perilous the terrain, the greater the need for a road map that delineates our
objective and our direction so that all can be guided, priorities can be maintained
and resources optimized.
PRACTICE – WALKING THE POLICY TALK
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Let us turn to the issue of practice. Practice is the day to day application of policy;
it is walking the policy talk and it must be consonant and convergent with policy.
Practice as uncritical habit without direction or policy nothing more than
bureaucratic routine. Practice as the behavior of policy can involve action as well
as inaction. Hogwood & Gunn 1984 have noted that inaction can play itself out as
both “involuntary failures to act and deliberate actions not to act”.
In critical respects practice is a dialectic involving activities that precede policy
decision making (analysis of the existing situation, generation of options), the
process by which options are implemented and stakeholders are engaged or
impacted, how implementation is evaluated and how the lessons are learnt.
If we ignore the dialectical character of practice, implementation loses vitality and
is quickly reduced to bureaucratic recipe. How often have we seen the
emergence of exciting new ideas and policy direction only to see them fossilized
by indifferent implementation that utilizes the same tired old approaches to
gestate them? New ideas and new direction require energy, delight and a sense
of freedom so that their implementation becomes a
celebration of possibility and hope. The willingness to
face our failings and learn from our contradictions must be
at the heart of this dynamic. As Paulo Freire summarized:
by doing we learn; and by learning we do better!
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The other dimension of the practice dynamic is the outcome of practice. Every
application of policy has both intended and unintended consequences and often
it is the unintended consequence that carries the most deleterious impact. This
was tragically manifested in the CNN news item shown earlier.
When unintended consequences are analyzed, we invariably find that the trigger
for this effect points back to some seemingly small but critical factor that was
overlooked in the elaboration of policy or in the details of the implementation.
Even closer examination of that factor will also invariably reveal insufficient
dialogue or an inadequate apprehension of the cultural milieu within which the
policy is expected to flourish.
Here is an example from my own experience. As we planned for the
implementation of universal secondary education in St. Lucia about 10 years ago,
we were concerned about the issue of quality as a more diverse range of abilities
would be entering that level. What could we do to drive continuous
improvement in learning at the primary level to ensure that students gaining
access to secondary education had mastered the knowledge and competencies to
succeed at that level? The abolition of the Common Entrance Exam was not
considered to be a viable option since automatic placement would create greater
quality challenges at the secondary level. So the approach was to change the CEE
from a one-shot exam over time to a system of continuous assessment. Conduct
a series of minimum standard tests at key stages of primary so that the CEE would
no longer be the ambush that uncovers illiterate and innumerate students in the
system. Minimum standard testing would give provide a snapshot to teachers,
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schools and parents of student performance in relation to where they ought to
be. Moreover, we reasoned, it would facilitate remediation in real time.
When the first wave of Minimum Standard tests was administered, individual
students received their reports, teachers got their class reports, principals got
their school report, District Education Officers got their District Profiles. And the
Ministry published a national schools profile which showed the results of all
primary schools. The result: the MST profiles were read as league tables; teachers
and principals were worried about their respective standing and immediately
instituted mock and practice MST tests coupled with MST extra “lessons” in the
hope of showing better results. Unintended effect: instead of taming the beast of
the Common Entrance, we had created a new litter of baby Common Entrances
with all of the genetic characteristics of the parent!
So colleagues, it’s not rocket science – it’s encoded in the DNA of Caribbean
common sense: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the devil is in
the details.” The lack of appreciation of the nuances of testing, accountability and
blame in our culture totally undermined what could have been a major reform.
Educational policy formulation and practice - in the Caribbean as elsewhere -
poses epistemological as well as practical and political challenges. The news item
on the beach suicide epitomizes this and begs the question “what ends must
policy serve?” what is its raison d’etre?
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I am aware of the media hyperventilation over my remarks about the failure of
education policy in our contemporary Caribbean but the issue is not
fundamentally about the allocation of blame but the assumption of responsibility.
The reality is that - as Konidari 2011 notes – all crisis is
epistemic. Systems of thinking are also ways of acting and
that is why it is so important that we start with a
reconceptualization. Habermas (1988) argued that ‘‘crisis
in social systems are not produced through accidental
changes in the environment, but through inherent system-imperatives that are
incompatible and cannot be hierarchically integrated’.
For the past three years we have been making the case from the CXC vantage
point for addressing this crisis by taking an epistemic and a systemic approach. It
is deeply encouraging to see the convergence of perspective emanating from
some of the latest thinking. Konidari asserts that:
“What we need is a total re-conception and re-construction of the
educational reality. It is evident that a system that has been
consciously conceived in order to satisfy precise needs and goals can
no longer serve the quality model that education needs to survive. It
is also evident that a society that denies its political role over its
economic growth cannot hope for quality education or any
substantial reform. It is also evident that education results reflect
larger problems and inequalities in societies; schools cannot
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overcome all the inequities and problems around them” (Konidari
Because education cannot be divorced from its social, economic and cultural
milieu walking the policy talk, our practice must derive from 3rd
perspectives. Education policy and implementation is fundamentally a technical
act with political consequences. Solutions or policies that are purely “technical”
can only achieve limited results but can face deep unanticipated challenges and
produce profound unintended consequences. Whether it be a matter of
curriculum or instructional capability or access to opportunity, we need to engage
the complex array of stakeholders who are affected or impacted. This is not an
easy process but it is a necessary principle because the interests of the various
players do not necessarily converge. While there can be convergence around the
big strategic direction and the fundamental principles, we must recognize and
accept that contestation is unavoidable on the details. There are measures that
can be deemed to be in the best interest of the student which will be opposed by
teachers because they will be seen as affecting their conditions of service; there
are measures which on which parents will differ from the Ministry or from
teachers. The traditional interests of religious authorities may not converge with
the modernizing intent of the state; neither will ethnic or sectarian priorities ride
comfortably in the compelling tide of globalization. Just witness the contestation
over education in societies such as Afghanistan caught between tradition and
modernity and one sees the complexity of the interplay of contradictions
between different interest groups.
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I suggest that the essence of the role of a ministry of education in the conditions
of the 21st
Century and the contemporary Caribbean is the management of this
process of shaping solution and consensus and the negotiation of legitimation.
Have you noticed that the most commonly used adjective of this era is “multi-“?
We live in the age of multi-everything: multi-media, multi-disciplinary, multi-
tasking, multi-faceted, multi-nationals, multi-lateralism, multi-systems.
Legitimation processes are finding common ground through accommodation of
difference and, in challenging situations, the co-existence of contradiction.
The challenge for policy makers today is that they can no longer stand on the
pedestal of central authority/control. Ministries are unable to maintain the old
postures of command and control for a variety of contextual reasons. Where
structural adjustment and economic dislocation have enfeebled the state,
ministries no longer have the power of resource allocation to wield. Where civil
society and structures of democratic accountability have gained strength, parents
and other actors of civil society correspondingly exercise decisive influence.
Education policy must start from an unambiguous principle that the center of
focus of the education system must be the learner. The reason we have
Ministries of Education is because we have people to educate and this requires
the organization of resources and the establishment of systems to enable this
process to happen in the most effective and efficient manner. Learning is the
central organizing principle from which all things must be added thereto.
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Over the last decade we have bought into the neo-liberal prescription that the
function of education in society is to produce good workers and grow an
economy. Education has become absolutely utilitarian – it has gone down the
road of equipping people with specific skills, with readiness for work etc. So the
policy narrative shifts to reflect these trends and we end up with reductive
conceptions of education expressed in slogans like learning to earn. Let us be
clear that education has always and will always contribute to the enhancement of
productive capacity in society through the transmission of knowledge and skills
but we must also be clear that education has a civilizing function to fulfill. It must
serve to make us more human, more social and contribute to the higher evolution
of the human spirit.
Ultimately you cannot divorce your capacity as a worker from the quality of your
person; you cannot demonstrate discipline in the workplace if you don’t manifest
it in your daily life; you cannot show good work attitudes if you don’t embody
strong personal ethos and a sense of connectedness. You cannot separate your
worker identity from your citizen identity.
HOW CAN POLICY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
I want to conclude by suggesting what is needed in our region today for policy to
make a difference.
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1. Articulate a clear sense of purpose – restore learning to the center of focus.
Are we teaching subjects or teaching students? There is a BIG conceptual
2. Broaden the Politics (capital P) of education – change the dynamics of
power in education by broadening participation and facilitating stakeholder
empowerment: parents, teachers, students – each in their own sphere.
The hegemony of privileged groups has prevailed for too long.
Fundamental change in education will not happen until we allow the
viewpoints of all interest groups to contend and to ventilate the debate on
direction. And we must be prepared to listen with particular humility to the
voices of students, teachers and parents.
3. Critically engage Caribbean reality – in our desperate search for solutions,
we have too often looked outside for answers which lie within. I firmly
believe that in every context and in every geography, not only does every
difficulty constitute an opportunity; but within every problem is hidden the
seeds of its solution. Just as every poison embodies its own antedote.
There is therefore a significant role for research, proper statistical
compilation and data analysis geared towards evidence based policy
formulation. None is better placed to lead this function than the Schools of
Education and the Teacher Training Institutions across the region. The
challenges of our time require robust, dynamic enquiry, bold thinking, and
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4. Learn from experience – local, regional and international. We must learn
from good practices wherever they are to be found but we must
contextualize these practices to understand how the particular soil yielded
this fruit. In every Caribbean territory today, policy makers are actively
grappling with some problem which has been confronted with varying
degrees of success and failure in some other part of the region. But only in
the rarest instances is there any referencing of these prior experiences and
the utilization of the lessons learned. There is so much we can learn from
our failures as much as our accomplishments.
5. Embrace the power of rigorous research – although we have already
spoken about the need to critically engage Caribbean reality, it is still
necessary to punctuate the power of rigorous research in generating new
knowledge and self-understanding. An absolute precondition of
transformation is understanding – you cannot change that which you have
no understanding of.
I have not even bothered to speak to the issue of the ways in which education
itself can make a difference because that would be bringing sand to the sea.
Enough has been written and researched on that matter. What I have focused
on is the issue of policy and the ways in which it is supposed to establish
purpose and inflect practice. We may not be at the extreme position of the
First Responders in California but we must continually ask ourselves whether
we are inconsiderate bystanders, life savers or life shapers on this educational
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landscape. Strong policy, consistent purpose and critical practice are all we
Brinkerhoff, D.W. and Crosby, B.L. (2002), Managing Policy Reform: Concepts and
Tools for Decision-Makers in Developing and Transitioning Countries, Kumerian
Press, Connecticut, USA
Habermas, J. (1988), Legitimation Crisis, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
Haddad, W. D. (1994), The Dynamics of Education Policy Making: Case Studies of
Burkina Faso, Jordon, Peru and Thailand, World Bank, Washington DC.
Hogwood, B.H. and Gunn, L.A. (1984), Policy Analysis for the Real World, Oxford
University Press, New York, NY.
Konidari, V. (2011) “Education in a complex world: a political question to be
answered”, On the Horizon Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 75-84.
PURPOSE, POLICY &
Address to the SOE Biennial Conference on
Jamaica, June 2011
• First generation policy analysis ‐ economic
models and human capital formation.
• Second generation analysis embraced
institutional economics and political economy and the
interplay between state, market and civil society.
• The third generation ‐ policy reform as a dynamic
process involving a complex interplay between macro‐
economic, sectoral and governance reforms with
outcomes that can only be imperfectly predicted or
We stand at the intersection where the broad vista of
globalization crosses with the open road of
technological possibility but the perception of the
path is complicated by the convolutions of
crisis and contraction and our societal resolve is
weakened by the ravages of drugs, and the erosion of family
“What we need is a total re‐conception and re‐
construction of the educational reality. It is evident
that a system that has been consciously conceived in order
to satisfy precise needs and goals can no longer serve the
quality model that education needs to survive. It is also
evident that a society that denies its political role over its
economic growth cannot hope for quality education or any
substantial reform. It is also evident that education
results reflect larger problems and inequalities in
societies; schools cannot overcome all the inequities and
problems around them”
sometimes when you are up to your
neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget
that your original intention was to
drain the swamp
Current levels of access to education in the
ECD Primary Secondary Tertiary
Sources: Tewarie 2009; Charles & Williams 2010
By doing we learn
By learning we do better
‐ Paulo Freire
We live in the age of
multi‐disciplinary, multi‐tasking, multi‐
faceted, multi‐nationals, multi‐
Not just knowledge but
SKILLS and ATTITUDES
Assessment FOR learning;
assessment OF learning
LEARNING TO CENTER STAGE