I recall as if it were yesterday seeing children’s smiling faces as they counted, added, subtracted, and danced their way through the brand new Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) mathematics programmes in 2006. The programmes have yielded positive results, but the recent release of the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA) results demonstrates that the Ministry of Education needs to act in order to sustain the progress made and continue to increase pupil achievement in maths.
As part of a firm hired by the ministry with the backing of the Inter-American Development Bank, my colleague, Noemi de Carter, helped a team of Guyanese educators and artists create the IRI programmes; I provided management support. On the initial evaluation, first graders, after using just one third of the IRI programmes, outperformed their peers from a previous cohort in all eight maths domains tested. Impressed, the ministry supported the rollout of the IRI curriculum nationwide.
When the first cohort of pupils to have completed the IRI programmes took the NGSA in 2011, 41 per cent of them achieved scores of 50 per cent or above, as compared to the previous two years’ results of 21 per cent and 34 per cent, a remarkable improvement. The results were sustained through 2013, with 43.9 per cent of pupils scoring 50 per cent or above. Because the rigorous evaluation programme was a victim of budget cuts, causation cannot be proven, but the available evidence indicates that the IRI programme was a—perhaps the—major contributor to the uptick in scores.
Unfortunately, the 2014 NGSA saw a dip in maths results, with just 31.5 per cent of pupils earning 50 per cent or more. A 2013 review by University of Guyana researchers suggests two forces may be at play. The teachers surveyed indicated that they had not received training in using IRI, and many schools did not have a radio or mp3 player available at the time of the review. Anecdotal news confirms that the latter is a serious worry, especially in rural areas where radio reception is not available. However, the study also reinforces the value of the IRI system, as pupils enjoy the IRI programmes, are motivated by them to learn, and most of the children can learn effectively using the programmes.
The problems can be addressed. The project that produced the IRI programmes, BEAMS, provided training manuals to the ministry; I sincerely hope these can be located and put to use. The personnel who developed the IRI programme could be recalled to conduct teacher training, to bolster both teachers’ skill in implementing the programme and their enthusiasm for it.
My firm conducted a study which showed that, for the many schools unable to receive reliable shortwave or AM radio, CD players with mp3 capability were at the time the most cost-effective technology for distributing the IRI programmes. I urged the establishment of a plan—and funding—for repairing or replacing the CD players periodically, as they would inevitably begin to break down after a few years. Unfortunately, no such plan was completed. The timing of the drop in maths scores suggests it could possibly be due, in part, to the CD players breaking down and not being replaced, resulting in some teachers’ inability to use the IRI programmes.
I strongly urge Minister Manickchand to address this concern as swiftly as possible. I recommend a study of how many schools are currently unable to participate in the IRI programme due to a lack of equipment (the launch of the Hinterland Education Improvement Project offers an opportunity to undertake this process in the hinterland), followed by a review of current technologies (it is quite likely that an even more efficient mp3 distribution system can be developed after seven years of technological progress) and the provision of the needed equipment. Recent efforts such as the HEIP are laudable, and any feasible measure to improve student achievement and equity should be pursued, but I hope the ministry will continue to demonstrate its long-standing commitment to IRI. Chief Education Officer Sam noted just last year, in regard to the 2013 NGSA, “I think the results we are seeing in Mathematics are directly related to what we would have noted with the introduction of the Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) programme.” It would be a shame to see this major investment—one that has proven effective and is designed to get results nationwide over a period of many years—fall by the wayside. My Guyanese colleagues are rightly proud of the efforts they made to help improve the nation’s maths education. May their contributions live on for years to come.