Barbados has the second-highest literacy rate in the world

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Excellence in Barbados Starts with Discipline
By Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nov 2009

(November 1, 2009) - ST. THOMAS PARISH, BARBADOS - Danielle Ifill puts her hand on her hip and poses for her friends as she dons the evergreen mortarboard that signals her upcoming graduation. In the auditorium of her worn-looking high school, Lester Vaughan secondary school, teacher Wilma Wiggins makes sure Ifill’s matching gown hangs the proper distance from the floor. While Wiggins measures, the 16-year-old with mahogany skin and ebony eyes casts a wistful glance at the school yard she’ll soon leave. A few months from now, she’ll start a computer engineering program at the local polytechnic university. With a smile, she says she’s prepared, but nervous. “I’m going to miss it,” she says. “But I am ready.”

If this were an American tale, Ifill would likely be cast as an exception. The Black girl who made it out, who managed to find a place among the 56 percent of African-American children who graduate from high school, and the 40 percent of those who go to college. But here in Barbados, this tiny eastern-most island of the Caribbean, Ifill’s story is instead the rule that defies notions of Black educational inferiority and underachievement. Barbados graduates 98 percent of its high school students; 53 percent go on to college. This 90 percent-Black nation not far from U.S. shores has the second-highest literacy rate in the world. With 99.7 percent of its population literate, it falls one–tenth of a point behind the three nations tied for first in the world: Cuba, Estonia and Poland (the United States is ranked 17th).

That this developing Black nation has managed to create a world-renowned education system offers a lesson for American schools entrenched in what seems to be an irreconcilable Black-White racial achievement gap: race doesn’t have to predict academic success. The key to Barbados’ success is four-fold—high expectations for all students, strict discipline, substantial education spending and a culture that embraces education as a form of nationalism.

“I cannot perceive of meeting someone in my society who can’t read,” says Dr. James Carmichael, a former secondary school teacher and computer scientist. “Education is part of the national conscious.” Expectations for achievement are perhaps most illustrated by a nation’s willingness to spend money on it.

Barbados funnels nearly a fifth of its national budget into education, and spends 6.9 percent of its entire gross national product on education, according to the CIA World Factbook, making it 24th in the world. The United States ranks 57th. Students here attend school for free from pre-kindergarten to university. The government also provides free breakfast and lunch to all students, something the United States provides only to low-income students.

But Barbados goes further in on key area: health care. Barbadians of all ages have universal free access to health care. If a child is sick, he or she can go to a neighborhood clinic near school for treatment. The schools have a referral system built in for children who need glasses or dental care. “Students don’t have to stay home if they’re sick in Barbados,” says Dr. Dan C. Carter, a former official in the education ministry. “This means they can be in the classroom learning.”

All of these factors help place Barbados first among developing nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, an indicator of not just a nation’s wealth, but its quality of life. For instance, the United States has the second highest GDP per capita in the world, but ranks 12th on the human development index. Quality of life indicators for African-Americans, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, rival that of some Third World countries. Tiny Barbados, in contrast, ranks 39th for per capita GDP but 31st among all nations on the quality of life index.

Another important factor that makes education work in Barbados is discipline. Diana Wilson, principal of the Lester Vaughn secondary school, calls it the “bedrock” of the school system. The disciplinary conditioning begins with school uniforms and ends with the distinct threat that if a student does something particularly bad he or she can be flogged with a bamboo cane. All students wear uniforms color-coded by public school. The skirts fall below the knees, no jewelry can be worn, nor any shoes other than plain black ones. The state pays for uniforms if parents can’t. “Uniforms are a form of discipline,” Mary Ann Redman, the teacher’s union president, says. “They help remove class distinction and are less distracting.”

Teachers in Barbados are held in esteem and relationships between teachers and students are nurturing but formal. Disrespectful behavior isn’t tolerated, and teachers use several forms of discipline, including in-school suspension and even taking students to visit detention and drug rehab centers.

But the ultimate tool in their disciplinary arsenal — one that is increasingly controversial worldwide — remains corporal punishment. Barbadians young and old recount the fear of floggings — a seldom-used but effective threat. “I had a caning once in primary school,” says Rudder, of the education ministry. “Never again. It was a deterrent for me.” It’s unlikely U.S. schools would ever embrace such punishment. But other methods, such as uniforms, parent involvement and creating an environment of respect, Carmichael says, can be implemented and successful in certain American schools where, like Barbados, nearly every seat is occupied by a brown-skinned child.

“My mother preached to us every day, ‘You can’t get through life without an education,’ ” Danielle Ifill says at her graduation practice. “We hear it all the time from everyone.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a reporter for The Oregonian.

Publié dans education

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