It is well known that the South African school system grossly underperforms relative to the resources invested into education. This point is starkly illustrated by Pritchettii who demonstrates that we are the single biggest learning underperformer relative to GDP per capita among low- and middle-income countries. For example, the gap between Vietnam and South Africa on international comparative tests is equivalent to about six and a half years of schooling. A comparison closer to home is that, although South Africa spends 30 times more per primary school child than Uganda, the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) language and maths scores for the two countries have remained virtually indistinguishable for
over 15 yearsii.
Poor accountability within the South African school system is frequently cited as a major cause of underperformance. In this article, education expert Nick Taylor explores the extent to which different forms of accountability may be helpful in raising the levels of learning and narrowing the huge learning gap between children from middle-class and poor families. He also explains why corporates should be focusing on initial teacher education.
The relationship between education policymakers and teachers is complex and indirect, entailing long lines of accountability that are stretched very thinly over a nested series of national and provincial departments of education, district offices, schools and, finally, classrooms. Under these circumstances, policymakers attempt to achieve accountability through inspections, monitoring procedures and reporting systems intended to ensure that the rules and regulations are being followediii. Accountability with regards to three of these regulatory mechanisms – time management, monitoring curriculum coverage, and the use of assessment data – are discussed below.
- Time management and teacher absenteeism
In South Africa, as in many developing countries, one of the most obvious manifestations of a breakdown in school functioning is poor time management, including teacher absenteeism and late- coming. In a survey conducted in 12 high schools and 12 primary schools spread across four provinces, an average of 18% of teachers were not in class during the first period of the first day and the last period of the second day of the site visitiv. Across the sample, an average of more than four teachers per school were somewhere other than in class at these times, usually because they were absent. Only five schools in the sample exhibited reasonably good teacher attendance rates. Teacher absenteeism was so rampant at four of the schools that they lost up to half the time allocated in the timetable. Various studies indicate that this is a widespread problem that has persisted for many years.
ii. Monitoring curriculum coverage
One of the earliest studies of classroom practice in South African schools serving poor children noted the slow pace adopted by teachers and the low level of cognitive demand placed on learnersv. School development interventions have tended to incorporate a focus on speeding up curriculum coverage among teachers and directing school managers to monitor the extent to which teachers work systematically through the entire curriculum in the allotted timevi.
In a total of 536 primary and high schools visited between 2012 and 2014, evaluators from the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) described a growing awareness among principals about the importance of curriculum planning and monitoring, and their own responsibility to lead the learning programme in the schoolvii. They also noted provincial and district level efforts to set up systems to monitor and support principals in this important function. However, although many schools were ‘talking the talk’ when it came to monitoring teachers’ work, their practices generally lacked substance.
While principals and teachers corroborated their superiors’ claims that coverage was being monitored, and while evaluators noted the existence of signed and stamped monitoring ‘instruments’, the quantity and quality of written work in learner books diverged markedly from the norms specified by the curriculum. Clearly, school leaders were going through the motions of monitoring, but these practices lacked substance and traction in assisting teachers to teach more effectively.
In order to get around this ‘box-ticking’ approach to monitoring, the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO), which operates in 1 200 schools in two districts in KwaZulu-Natal, is focused on building management routines at school and district level to support the improvement of curriculum coverageviii. PILO provides training and tools to curriculum leaders that are intended to help identify and solve problems within schools and between school and district officials. Since curriculum coverage is quantifiable, dashboards reflect coverage relative to learner performance that can be used for monitoring and support.
The assumption behind this approach – unconfirmed at this stage – is that if curriculum coverage improves, learning outcomes will improve. However, the degree of success of the project lies in the extent to which managers have the curriculum knowledge needed to assist teachers to make the kinds of professional judgements that are required to navigate the complex terrain between a sophisticated curriculum, challenging institutional conditions, and learners from impoverished homes. Success ultimately depends on the capacity of teachers to exercise these judgements.
iii. The use of assessment data to improve teaching and learning
The use of assessment data in the hands of parents, school principals and systems managers to pressure, guide and support teachers into performing better has been labelled ‘information-for- accountability’ix. Studies in India, Liberia, Pakistan and Uganda show that, under certain conditions, information provision can stimulate actions on the part of school stakeholders or politicians, which result in increased learning outcomesx. This is one of the assumptions behind the systemic testing efforts that have had a mixed history in South Africa.
Van der Berg and Hofmeyr make the case that standardised assessment systems, such as the one provided by the Annual National Assessments (ANAs), offer a potential lever for increased accountability. A major obstacle to bureaucrats, principals and parents being able to hold teachers accountable for learner performance is the inaccessibility of information about classroom practices, in part due to union resistance to any attempts to monitor teachers in recent years. According to Van der Berg and Hofmeyr, standardised assessments pose a possible solution to this problem since they provide specific information on performance to parents and bureaucrats.
Resistance from teacher unions caused the ANAs to be discontinued in 2015, cutting short the opportunity to confirm or disprove these assumptions. However, the Western Cape Provincial Department of Education has mounted annual systemic tests in language and maths at primary school level across the province since 2002. If the accountability theory of assessment proposed above is valid, then the province should increase its performance advantage over the other provinces on international comparative tests at primary school level. However, this expectation has not been met: instead of the gap between Western Cape scores and the South African mean widening, as the theory would predict, it has remained relatively constant over the four iterations of SACMEQxii.
As Spaullxiii notes: “… simply providing principals and teachers with ANA results is unlikely to yield considerable improvement if the cause of low performance is not primarily effort-related (attendance, time-use and motivation) but, rather, is linked to the lack of core competencies of the staff”.
For information to have an impact, school- level actors must know how to improve service deliveryxiv. Some behaviour changes, such as improved teacher attendance, may be straightforward, while others, such as more effective instructional techniques, are harder to achieve. Unless teachers are supported with the tools and scope for change, additional information may only produce frustrationxv.
Bureaucratic accountability does not guarantee results; it concerns itself with procedures and is effective only when procedures are known to produce the desired outcomes, and when compliance is easily measured and securedxvi. The problem with the bureaucratic solution to the accountability dilemma in education is that effective teaching is not routine, learners are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable or standardised.
Professionals are obligated to do whatever is best for the client; not what is easiest, most expedient, or even what the client might want. They are also obligated to base a decision about what is best for the client on available knowledge – derived from personal experience, as well as from clinical and research knowledge acquired by the occupation as a whole, and represented in professional journals, certification standards and specialty training. Finally, professionals are required to take into account the unique needs of the individual clients in fashioning their judgements about what strategies or treatments are appropriate.
These norms are not met in two important ways in the South African school system. First, it has become increasingly clear that university faculties of education are not preparing new teachers to exercise the kinds of professional judgement described by Darling-Hammondxvii. For example, recent research indicates that, on entry to university, around half of student teachers from three campuses in 2017 and seven campuses in 2018 who participated in a pilot test were unable to achieve 50% on a simple maths test which draws items from the primary school curriculum. These students did particularly poorly on questions involving fractions, decimals, ratios and proportions – topics which underlie high school mathematics. The most disturbing finding is that, after four years of study, final year students at three of these universities had made very little progress on learning these fundamental concepts, with the large majority still performing at around 40% and lessxviii.
When insecure and ill-prepared teachers are placed under the pressure of curriculum coverage, there is an inevitable drift towards curriculum mimicry, or the pretence of compliance where teachers appear to be conforming to coverage requirements without actually doing so in practice. In order to combat this tendency, according to Jansenxix, the specific focus of teacher competence should be less on behaviours and more on subject matter knowledge and pedagogical (how to teach) content knowledge which, research illustrates, is the bridge between curriculum coverage and learner outcomes.
The second way in which professional competence among teachers is undermined in the South African school system is that, no matter how well educated teachers are, the lack of school leadership and management, coupled with the demanding environment, has the potential to demotivate the most dedicated and competent young teachers. Simply put, the good intentions behind the legislation that governs the recruitment, development and promotion of teachers are widely perverted by nepotistic and corrupt practices, at great expense to the quality of schooling, particularly in schools serving poor families and, ultimately, the nationxxi.
As a result, schools and teachers have a poor public image and, under these conditions, who would want to be a teacher? Consequently, education faculties have to make do with the academically weakest students, whom they educate inadequately, and the cycle continues. Building a virtuous cycle, such as that maintained by countries with high-quality schooling, starts with selecting the brightest and most highly motivated students into initial teacher education (ITE) and providing them with the best theoretical and practical training; supporting them to exercise effective pedagogical practices in their classrooms, and identifying and developing the best leadership skills to take the system to higher levels of performance.
High-performing school systems teach us that these goals take decades to achieve, as a critical mass of competent teachers builds up in the system and the status of teaching gradually rises, within an environment of policy consistency and scrupulously sound governance.
The role of the private sector
Regarding the two great problems that beset South African schooling – poor human resource management, of which the most obvious manifestation is the inefficient use of time, and weak teacher subject and pedagogical knowledge – the former is, in the first instance, a political problem characterised by a reluctance to demand that civil servants fulfil the terms of their contractsxxii. This is a problem that only government, as the employer of civil servants, can address.
However, the second problem – weak educator knowledge and skills – is an issue to be shared between universities, government and the private sector. The first point to note is that the knowledge foundation of the large majority of teachers is extremely weak. For example, most grade six maths teachers have an inadequate grasp of multiplicationxxiii. This means that, in order to get them to the required level to teach the grade six maths curriculum, they need to be nurtured into a very good understanding of multiplication and division, then fractions and decimals, then ratio and, finally, they are ready to undertake the topic that underlies the high school curriculum: a flexible understanding of proportional reasoning. Clearly, this process will take more than a couple of afternoon workshops scattered over the year. This is not to say that we should not work with in-service teachers in order to build their knowledge and skills, but what this point emphasises is that we can only expect modest progress in upskilling teachers through in-service training (continuous professional development).
The corporate and non-profit sectors have been actively involved in teacher development for over three decades, but what is there to show for all this investment of funds and effort? Do we have tried-and-tested models that have been demonstrated to work? The answer is, at best, maybe, some of the time, under certain conditions. A big weakness of all activity in the continuous professional development (CPD) terrain is that it is largely under-researched and unevaluated and, therefore, we have learnt very little from our efforts. Arguably, the priority with respect to CPD is knowledge building through research and development, monitoring and evaluation, and a fearless attitude towards reporting the results of programme evaluations, however discouraging they may be. Less than successful programmes offer important learning opportunities for the entire field, if only to discourage other investors from trying the same idea and wasting their time and money.
Finally, given the fact that the potential impact of CPD on school performance is likely, at best, to be very modest, the primary focus of efforts to improve teacher effectiveness must lie in the terrain of ITE. Not only are students in ITE far younger than the average in-service teacher – and hence far more amenable to learning new concepts and skills – but they have far more time – four years of full-time study – to do so. Surely in that time our universities can develop the required language and mathematical skills needed for South African classrooms? This is an area in which corporate donors have largely confined their efforts to providing bursaries to student teachers. This is important work and should becontinued, but an even more urgent priority is to work with teacher educators to improve the quality of teacher undergraduate education.
– Nick Taylor is senior research fellow at JET Education Services. He writes here in his personal capacity.
- Pritchett, L. (2019). A Review Essay – The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two South African Provinces. Oxford: Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE). Downloaded on 21 September 2019 from https://www.riseprogramme.org/publications/book-review- politics-governance-basic education-south-african-provinces
- Taylor, N., Deacon, R. and Robinson, N. (2019). Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Teacher Preparation Support. Overview Report. Available at https://www.jet.org.za/ resources/secondary-level teacher-education-overview- report.pdf/view
- Darling Hammond, L. (1988). Accountability for Professional Practice, In Levine, M. (ed) Professional Practice Schools: Building a Model. Report for the American Federation of Teachers, Monograph No. 1, 71–102. Washington DC: Center for Restructuring Educational Issues, American Federation of Teachers.
- DPME/DBE. (2017). Implementation Evaluation of the National Curriculum Statement Grade R to 12 Focusing on the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS). Pretoria: Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation/Department of Basic Education.
- Macdonald, C. (1990). Crossing the Threshold into Standard Three: Main Report of the Threshold Project. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.
- Taylor, N. and Mabogoane, T. (2008). Khanyisa Education Support Programme: Base Study Cohort 2Schools. Johannesburg: JET Education Services.
- NEEDU. (2013). NEEDU national report 2012: The state of literacy teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase. Pretoria: National Education Evaluation and Development Unit.
NEEDU. (2014). NEEDU national report 2013: Teaching and learning in rural primary schools. Pretoria: National Education Evaluation and Development Unit.
NEEDU. (2019). NEEDU national report 2014: Prepared for the twenty-first century? The quality of high school education in South Africa. Pretoria: National Education Evaluation and Development Unit.
- Metcalfe, M. and Witten, A. (2019). Taking Change to Scale: Lessons from the Jika iMfundo Campaign for Overcoming Inequalities in Schools, in Spaull, N. and Jansen, J. (Eds) South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
- Bruns, B., Filmer, D. and Patrinos, H. (2011). Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms. Washington DC: The World Bank. Available at http://siteresources.worldbank. org/EDUCATION/Resources/278200-1298568319076/ makingschoolswork.pdf
- See ix
- Van der Berg, S. and Hofmeyr, H. (2018). Republic of South Africa Systematic Country Diagnostic An Incomplete Transition: Overcoming the Legacy of Exclusion in South Africa. Background note: Education in South Africa. Stellenbosch: University of Stellenbosch, Research on Social and Educational Policy.
- SACMEQ. (2011). Education in South Africa: Country profile, 28 April 2011. Downloaded on 28 April 2012 from http://www.sacmeq.org/education-south-africa.htm
DBE. (2017). The SACMEQ IV Project in South Africa: A Study of the Conditions of Schooling and the Quality of Education. Short Report, August 2017. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.
- Spaull, N. (2015). Accountability and capacity in South African education. Education as Change, 19(3): 113–142.
- See ix
- See ix
- See iii
- Taylor, N. (2019). Teacher knowledge in South Africa, in Spaull, N. and Jansen, J. (Eds) South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
- Bowie, L. (2019). Pre-service primary teachers’ mathematical knowledge: an exploratory study. Presentation to 27th Annual Conference of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (SAARMSTE), University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, 15–17 January 2019.
- Jansen, J. (2019). Inequality in Education: What is to Be Done? in Spaull, N. and Jansen, J. (Eds) South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.xDBE. (2016). Report of the ministerial task team appointed by Minister Angie Motshekga to investigate allegations into the selling of posts of educators by members of teachers’ unions and departmental officials in provincial education departments. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.
- DBE. (2016). Report of the ministerial task team appointed by Minister Angie Motshekga to investigate allegations into the selling of posts of educators by members of teachers’ unions and departmental officials in provincial education departments. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.
- See vii, xxi
- See xvii