Grade 6 pupils beat teachers at maths

2013-10-27 10:00

Grade 6 pupils are outperforming their teachers in mathematics tests.

This is the alarming result of a study by Nicholas Spaull, a University of Stellenbosch researcher.

He conducted the study on behalf of the Centre for Enterprise Development.

The news comes as South Africa’s 707 136 matrics start their final exams tomorrow.

The maths pass rate has averaged at 45% since 2008, with most school leavers managing to scrape through with marks of between 40% and 49%.

If Spaull’s research is an indication of things to come, the maths crisis in schools appears to be far from over.

Spaull found that Grade 6 teachers – who were the focus of his research – from disadvantaged schools across South Africa cannot solve basic arithmetic problems.

And there is no reason to believe that teachers in primary school grades are any better.

“One of the most striking features of inequality in South Africa is that the best-performing Grade 6 pupils know more than some Grade 6 teachers, albeit not their own,” Spaull said.

“The top 5% of Grade 6 pupils in South Africa scored higher marks on the same mathematics test than the bottom 20% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers.”

Spaull compiled his research by conducting a desktop study of the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality 111 report (Sacmeq), which was done in 2007.

As part of the Sacmeq exercise, Grade 6 pupils and teachers in South Africa and 13 other African countries were asked to write maths tests.

Although the questions were not entirely identical, Spaull said the difficulty level was the same. Teachers were required to answer 42 multiple-choice questions.

“There is a case to be made that teachers who lack an elementary understanding of the subjects they teach can actually do harm to their pupils.

“A lack of basic content knowledge among teachers is a problem that should be addressed urgently. Teachers who lack a sufficient conceptual understanding of their subject are more likely to employ inappropriate concrete techniques when teaching and use methods that undermine the long-term learning trajectories of pupils,” said Spaull.

The study also found that:

» Only 32% of South African Grade 6 mathematics teachers have desirable levels of mathematics content knowledge. The average in 14 African countries was 42%;

» The average South African teacher answered 46% of the 42 questions correctly; and

» Grade 6 maths teachers in the poorest 60% of South Africa’s schools have statistically significantly less mathematics content knowledge than the average Grade 6 teachers in Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda.

This is despite the fact that the average school in the poorest 60% of South African schools is considerably wealthier than the average school in Swaziland, Tanzania or Uganda.

Spaull has now suggestedthe reintroduction of the controversial teacher competency tests, which the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) vehemently opposes.

“The existing body of evidence suggests that a large proportion of South African teachers have below-basic content knowledge in the subjects that they teach – largely as a result of inadequate apartheid-era teacher training and the ineffectiveness of in-service teacher training initiatives,” he said.

“In light of this, and following the premise that teachers cannot teach what they do not know, it is a logical imperative that a system of identifying which teachers need what help is urgently required.”

But Sadtu says the tests are not an option. The union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said: “We are opposed to teacher competency tests, we don’t want them. We prefer teachers to be trained to improve their competency.”

Maluleke acknowledged that some teachers could not do maths but said it was not because they were stupid.

“The issue is we don’t have specialised teachers. We take people who did history or geography and ask them to teach maths. What do you expect?”

He said Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga should prioritise the opening of teacher training colleges to train teachers in specialisations.

Motshekga said she was aware of the problem and that this had led to the introduction of the Annual National Assessments.

Some of the questions that floored Grade 6 maths teachers

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