We are failing our kids

2011-09-24 12:20

The weak education in schools across South Africa did not end with apartheid. If one considers what respondents say in Stats?SA surveys, not enough parents are unhappy about the poor education system.

The very few who complain about aspects of education grumble about lack of textbooks – a very valid complaint – or the cost of education. But few complain about teacher quality, teacher effort or how little their children are learning at school.

Most parents would have good reason to complain about all these things, given the state of education in the majority
of our schools.

The political transition brought more resources to historically disadvantaged schools.

This has been good for teachers, who now receive better salaries, teach smaller classes or have more free periods than before the political transition.

However, it brought little improvement in learning for most children in the school system.

Among black children, a lucky few managed to get into the better-performing part of the school system – mainly historically white schools.

These children, even poor children, now manage to perform almost as well as their rich or middle-class classmates (confirming that poverty is not the real handicap where schools function well).

But for the bulk of the school population, little has changed in terms of educational performance.Some ascribe this to poverty and to lack of resources.

But if it was really poverty and resources that made the difference, one would expect other African countries to perform even worse.

That is not the case.

The first column of figures shows the performance in Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) reading tests undertaken in Grade 6 in 15 education systems in southern and eastern Africa.

South Africa performed poorly against this group of countries, even though we have less poverty, more resources and generally smaller classes than most of the other
participating nations.

Yes, more of our children attend school. But even if you consider that, the country is not performing well compared to other nations.

This hits home when one considers the performance of the poorest quarter of children.Among these children, South Africa performs second worst in reading, beating only Zambia.

Poor South African children thus end up doing worse in reading – and in mathematics – than even poorer children in Lesotho or Namibia, and far worse than poor children in Kenya, Swaziland or Tanzania.

How do we explain this very weak performance?

It’s not textbooks. These are more common in South African schools than in many other African countries, even though many South African schools do not use them when they have them or, if they use them, do not allow children to take them home.

Nor is it other school resources. Even poor schools in this country have more resources than in many of our neighbouring countries.In focus group studies we undertook in Limpopo, we asked parents how they could recognise a good school.

Two answers were common. According to these parents, children in good schools wear uniforms and they pass. For many, wearing uniforms is a sign of discipline.

But many parents simply think that because children are passing, they are doing well enough at schools. Hundreds of thousands of parents across the country are devastated each year when their children fail matric horribly after having passed easily every year.

The reason for this is that many teachers simply do not set high enough standards and do not cover enough work in enough depth.

Thus children pass without having reached adequate standards, or without having been given a proper opportunity to learn much of the work.

This is again mainly a problem in historically black schools. A recent national survey of schools found that 33.3% of Grade 5 children had not written a single piece of at least the length of a paragraph three-quarters through the school year.

In a study in one of our provinces, we found that most Grade 3 teachers said that they did the times table at least three days a week in class – yet half the teachers were not confident that their children would be able to calculate the answer to two times four.

The difficulty level, or level of cognitive demand, of what is covered in class is simply too low and the pace is too slow.

There are too many interruptions and most principals are not really interested enough about how much teaching and learning is really happening in classrooms.

That is why the annual national assessments, which were introduced this year, are potentially so important.These are tests written by all children in a grade across the country and then marked by the teachers in the school.

They provide teachers with a better idea of the level of difficulty of the assessments they should set their classes, indicate to them what work they should have covered, and they could also provide a valuable comparison to how well their classes are performing relative to others in similar schools, or against the country average.This could provide teachers with very important information.

These assessments could also be very useful to parents, as it could offer them an honest and accurate assessment of whether their children have fallen behind – information that they do not usually get from the internal assessments and yearly school reports.

But then there should be closer monitoring of these assessments, otherwise some teachers may simply start manipulating the results in order to deflect criticism by parents.

The media could also do a lot to draw to the attention of parents what they should be expecting of their schools.

How many parents know that the first annual national assessments indicate that only about a third of children are performing at levels that are considered adequate for their grade in both literacy and numeracy?

How many newspapers have assisted parents by telling them how to interpret the report cards that all children are supposed to receive on their performance in these assessments?

Only when parents have a better understanding of the quality of the education that their children receive will there be appropriate indignation or anger at schools that are failing them.

We need this information to really empower our communities.As a nation, we cannot continue with a situation where only 10% of our schools provide quality education.

Our children deserve better.

» Van der Berg is professor of economics and National Research Foundation research chair in Economics of Social Policy at the University of Stellenbosch.

This opinion piece is based on research on low-quality education as a poverty trap undertaken by a team at the university and funded by the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development, a partnership programme between the Presidency and the European Union.

The author writes in his personal capacity 

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