20% pass rate for maths? Here's what's really going on

By Nicola Whitfield
21 December 2016

Mary Metcalfe, a professor of education at Wits University and former Gauteng education MEC, says we're misunderstanding what's going on. She tells us why.

Recently there have been intense debates on the state of education around the country.

The context was a clumsily managed circular to schools from the department of basic education, reinforced by early press statements, that gave the public the impression that the maths pass rate had been lowered to 20%.

There was a crescendo of outrage. That the maths pass rate had not been lowered could not be heard in the tumult.

Read more: Matrics, see your exam results here first!

My understanding of the department’s circular is that it provides guidance to teachers on the matter of progression (or promotion) of pupils who are not going to study maths to matric level.

The circular indicates that pupils who achieve a pass rate of 20% in grades 7 to 9 cannot proceed to study academic maths in Grade 10.

If maths is the only subject that they fail, they will be allowed to proceed to the next grade even with a fail in maths as they will drop academic maths at the end of Grade 9 and proceed with maths literacy in Grade 10.

This seems sensible because to make a pupil repeat a whole year to improve their mark in a subject they will not be studying in the future seems ill-advised.

As I listened to and occasionally interacted with the rage, four things struck me:

* Firstly, how deeply hurt many South Africans are at the inadequate progress we are making in education, and in maths performance in particular.

Foundations are poor from the first years of schooling, and maths performance declines to an alarming level in the early years of high school.

In the 2013 Annual National Assessments, the average of pupils in Grade 3 was 49%, in Grade 6, it was 38% and in Grade 9, it was 13%.

The offence of the perception that the pass mark was being lowered touched the painful memory of the insult of Hendrik Verwoerd and its consequences:

“There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This anger and disappointment must become a productive force of social mobilisation and resolve to decisively change this historic legacy.

Government must develop sound policies to address this real crisis – strong institutions to deliver these policies, and it must communicate these clearly.

And the public must hold government to account in doing so.

* The second thing that struck me in the debate is how little key features of the new education dispensation are understood.

If we are to hold government accountable on its policy choices and the implementation of them, we need to be better informed about key policy building blocks.

For example, it is not understood that, before 2012, the majority of pupils who passed matric did not do any maths at all, but that since then pupils not doing academic maths are compelled to do maths literacy.

* The third thing that struck me was how the department had missed an opportunity to talk to teachers about the education arguments informing their instruction.

The circular was signed by the director-general of the department on December 2, a mere three days before schools closed for pupils and presumably after mark schedules and reports were complete.

It consisted of nine paragraphs of technical instructions. The closest any sentence came to providing an educational argument to educational professionals was that the current “promotion requirements … may impact negatively on a high number of learners”.

There was no request to teachers to understand the guidelines as a framework to assist in making professional judgements in the best interests of each pupil.

There was no appeal to teachers to base their promotion decisions on the circumstances of each pupil, and to engage in professional discussion with colleagues as to the readiness of the pupil to succeed in the next year and the educational implications

of this.

Most striking was that there was no guidance given as to the consequences for teachers’ work of promoting pupils with inadequate maths foundations into the next year.

More pupils in grades 8 and 9 will have weaker maths understanding next year, and teachers will require resources and training that enable them to provide differentiated support.

Decisions about promoting a pupil or holding them back cannot be based on arithmetic calculations, but on the professional judgments of teachers, and communication should deepen this capability and confidence.

* The fourth thing that struck me was the number of voices from educationists engaging publicly in this debate. Sara Muller, a maths teacher, wrote an excellent piece used in several electronic publications.

What can be learnt from this intense and angry debate? There is a simmering discontent with the state of education, particularly our poor maths performance.

This energy can be a powerful productive force if focused on strategies for decisive and systemic change. The occasional spluttering of outrage and the apportioning of blame is futile.

We need a national discussion on education challenges that leads to a clear and shared programme of supportive action and accountability.

This carries an obligation to be informed and build understanding.

It is my view that more teachers must contribute publicly to these debates, share diverse views and experiences, and push the education project and the challenges teachers face to the forefront of national concerns.

From deeper public understanding will come inclusive solutions, and focused accountability.

This opinion piece originally appeared in City Press.

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