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Point and Counterpoint-Dr. Zab’s jab at education reform: More quality learning time

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2021. 4:54 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Dr. Louis Zabaneh is an economist par excellence, a graduate of Clemson University, known to some as the Harvard of the South!  Recently (2020) he brought his economist lens to education, and based on his assessment of the state of affairs of the education system of the country, is proposing some deep seated, ambitious reforms of the country’s education system.  According to Dr. Zab’s analysis: “Belize’s education system has been performing poorly for a number of decades.  While ‘reforms’ have taken place over this period, there has been no marked improvement in the outputs of the system.  On the contrary, these reforms have seen the curriculum workload becoming increasingly heavier and student performance remain stagnant in terms of grades and actually fall in terms of readiness for tertiary education and the workforce.”  The question to me is to what extent is this analysis a true reflection of the state of education in Belize and, as Zabaneh sees it, is a fourth wave of education reforms in fifty years the answer at this time?

In the appendix, entitled A New Primary and Secondary Curriculum for Belize, of a book authored by Zabaneh entitled “The Sustainable Human Development of Belize: A New Approach for a Better Future” (2020), he argues that Belize’s education sector is afflicted with “too much curriculum”.  Students at the primary and secondary levels, he says, are “drowning in multiple subjects, in many cases over 10   separate subjects, and they continue to do poorly in basic critical thinking, math and English”.  This subpar performance Dr. Zabaneh claims, is evidenced: in the PSE and CXC results; at the tertiary level; and in the job market.

Based on this analysis Dr. Zabaneh is proposing a set of reforms that he believes can fix this problem.  These include reduce the number of subjects in the curriculum of the primary and secondary schools; reduce the number of homework given to students; create a five-level school system (Infant School, Middle School, Upper School, Lower Secondary School, and Upper High School) and train teachers by level and subject speciality; introduce personalized learning and personal leadership into the curriculum; utilize the Curriculum Framework developed by the International Bureau of Education (IBE) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and cultural Organization (UNESCO); reform the teacher training programs at the tertiary level to be consistent with all of the recommendations herein; and engage in national consultations with all stakeholders.  There are no timelines or costs (budget) attached to any of these recommendations, which have led to some of my colleagues calling these more a wish list than a set of serious recommendations.   

That observation notwithstanding, of the seven recommendations I find three of them especially interesting.  The first is his desire to want to reduce the number of subjects taught in our primary and secondary schools.  This recommendation is parallel to the one made to the European Union (EU) Countries in a 2018 report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which states that: “Confronted with the needs and requests of parents, universities and employers, schools are dealing with curriculum overload.  As a result, students often lack sufficient time to master key disciplinary concepts or, in the interest of a balanced life, to nurture friendships, to sleep and to exercise.  It is time to shift the focus of our students from “more hours of learning” to “quality learning time”.  The argument Dr. Zabaneh offers in support of this recommendation is powerful.  He uses the concept of diminishing returns to show the negative returns to the curriculum we had over the years.  “In recent years”, he argues, “one of the main culprits for this quagmire is the overloaded curriculum that have been actively reducing the outputs of our educational system, a classic example of the negative returns on outputs”.  He recommends that we need to cut back on the number of subjects we offer in school.  He would be happy with a cap on 8 subjects.

The second recommendation that caught my eye was recommendation #3 in which he is recommending that we create a five-school education system: Infant School, Middle School, Upper School, Lower Secondary School and an Upper High School.  This is not only a radical proposal but an expensive one.  But what it would do is to deal with the structural problem our education has: the problem of alignment.  Our education system is not properly aligned with the Caribbean Education System, the UK or the US.  In the Caribbean, for example, kids start the public school system at 5 years old and take the PSE at the end of Std V.  In Belize they start at 5 years and take the PSE at the end of Std VI.  We have 4 years of high school and they have 5 years.  Students therefore finishes their primary and secondary education at different ages which makes comparison on performance difficult and sometimes unfair.  And with arrangements like the free flow of labour among Anglophone Caribbean Countries Belize is not playing on a level playing field that puts the country at a disadvantage when it comes to matters like the free flow of labour.

The third recommendation that caught my eye was recommendation #5 that urges the Ministry of Education (MOE) to utilize curriculum frameworks developed by the IBE and UNESCO since according to Zabaneh: “Unfortunately in Belize, we do not have a process that is followed by the MOE to ensure the delivery of relevance accessibility/equity, quality, effectiveness and efficiency, by the curriculum”.  It was shocking to hear that the MOE’s Quality Assurance Development Services (QUADS), the unit of the MOE responsible for curriculum development, does not have such a framework in place.  As a member state of the UN, the UNESCO framework is free and so that framework could be adopted at little or no cost.  Moreover, UNESCO provides countries like Belize with technical assistance to build capacity in this area.  So, this recommendation in a way is what my colleague, Dr Silvia Cattouse, like to say is one of those ‘low laying fruits’ that could be accessible almost immediately.

All in all, I welcome Dr. Zabaneh’s effort to give some serious thoughts to what the country could do to try and deal with the sustainable development of its Human resource through education reforms.  Though some of his recommendations need to be subject to further scrutiny, his vision of education reform seems to me to be a tenable one.  I am especially delighted that he views continuous consultations with “all stakeholders” as a very important part of the process of education reform, as it only when we conceptualize and carry out these reforms together that they have any real chance of taking root, being extensively diffused, and ultimately being successful.  Please feel free to use this column to share your views on how you think the fourth wave of education reforms in the country should proceed.          

Dr. Dоrіаn Ваrrоw іѕ аn еduсаtоr wіth а lоng hіѕtоrу оf іnvоlvеmеnt іn еduсаtіоn іn Веlіzе, hаvіng ѕеrvеd аѕ а Lесturеr аt thе Unіvеrѕіtу оf Веlіzе, аnd аѕ Сhіеf Ехесutіvе Оffісеr іn thе Міnіѕtrу оf Еduсаtіоn. Dr. Ваrrоw іѕ аn еmіnеnt рrоfеѕѕіоnаl whо іѕ wеll rеѕресtеd bоth lосаllу аnd аbrоаd. Не іѕ ѕеrvіng аѕ аn еdіtоrіаl mеmbеr аnd rеvіеwеr оf ѕеvеrаl іntеrnаtіоnаl rерutеd јоurnаlѕ аnd hаѕ аuthоrеd mаnу rеѕеаrсh аrtісlеѕ/bооkѕ rеlаtеd tо еduсаtіоn. Араrt frоm еduсаtіоn, hе іѕ аlѕо а ѕроrtѕ еnthuѕіаѕt.


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