(This post was first published in The Witness on 27 December 2010)


Every new Minister of Education has suggested something new to revamp and fix what definitely seems to be broken in our public school system.  And every parent, teacher, unionist, and student has his or her own solution, which usually involves someone other than themselves doing something different. 


In his book, The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell quotes research done on 650 first graders in the public school system in Baltimore, USA.  They used the maths and reading skills assestment, California Achievement Test (CAT), broken down by socioeconomic class: low, middle, and high.  And the poor there, Gladwell tells us, are very poor.


Usually the CAT is administered in July, at the end of each school year.  And if one takes the July scores over the five year period that the Baltimore children spent in grades one to five, the children from wealthier homes did far better than those from poorer homes and neighbourhoods.  The gap between them more than doubled in the five-year period.  That of course is what we would expect.  Theories on the reasons for the disparity abound, but most would say that the school system is failing the poor: poor resources, under qualified staff, no classroom space.  These are problems and theories with which we in South Africa can identify.


America, of course, is plagued by a three-month long summer holiday and in Baltimore the CAT was not only administered in July but also in September, at the beginning of the new school year.  The difference between the scores at the beginning (September) and the end (July) of each year for each group measured how much learning took place during the actual school year.  The surprise is that there was little or no difference between the scores.  In fact the poorer students slightly outperformed the wealthier ones over the five-year period (189 points to 184). 


Comparing scores at the end of the year (July) and the beginning of the new year (September) showed how much learning took place over the holidays.  It was there that the scores diverged, with the children of wealthier families having a distinct advantage.  Access to books and holiday clubs, to projects and stimulating site visits, show in the amount of learning that took place outside of school.  During the five school holidays the wealthier children added another 52 points to their scores.  Over the same five holidays the poorer children gained a mere quarter of a point (0.26).


As Gladwell points out, “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.”  And again, “Schools work.  The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn't enough of it.”  


I’m not aware of similar studies in this country.  But, like America, we focus a great deal on the curriculum (out with OBE) on class size, on resources (a laptop for every teacher), and on qualifications—even to the point of taking teachers out of school for training, and seminars, and union meetings, or whatnot.  This research suggests that what Cabinet Ministers have said about their teachers, but have failed to enforce, will make all the difference.  Teachers need to be in class, teaching their students, every day of the school year.  Union meetings to happen outside of school time.  Marking end of year exams to happen after school.  Schools don’t close a week early just because exams are finished.  Every day that an already disadvantaged child spends outside of school he or she becomes more disadvantaged.  Let’s get our children and our teachers back to school.


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Comment by Tracey Norton (Berry) on March 11, 2011 at 16:49
Eish, gentlemen I wish our 'esteemed' ministers could take cognisance of what you so eloquently say. I am a former prmary school teacher, and a mother to school going children, so this hits a very big button for me. The lack of basic, old fashioned teaching, especially in phonics, reading, writing, language and foundational numeracy has created, now, generations, of virtually illiterate school leavers and university students. The new labour law amendments demand transformation in the workplace - but where does it need to begin - in the junior primary classrooms, so children can graduate to higher levels at least able to express themselves  clearly. The government needs to be investing in pre-school education for the poor - this is so important to later ability and success - and improving the quality of education in the disadvantaged schools - with desks and chairs and books and assistance to teachers who want to make a difference, despite the odds against them! Long term solutions rather than poitically motivated short term 'quick fixes' that are bound to fail ...
Comment by Chris Reay on December 30, 2010 at 14:54

Education, skills and unemployment: the gathering storm

Having done some extensive research into international trends on this topic over some time, I ask myself whether SA has a chance of reversing its known skills’ imbalances and attendant impact on
employment, and I have concluded the following.

Our education crisis manifests itself in the low level of basic skills across the larger part of the population, being numeracy and literacy. These are the foundation of any further skills
development. With them must evolve a realization that skills development is an
on-going life need to adjust to the ever changing economic and sociological
position of any country in the game of global competition for survival. In this
respect, the country has failed to realise that the argument for educating the
uneducated is ultimately a political one. Education is essential for
democracies that are interested in self preservation. Evidence of this is
indisputable. When the bulk of the voters eventually find that the empty and
unachievable promises of politicians leave them in continuous state of
non-participation in the economy, they will find ways of voting to overcome the
existing voting system that has remained oblivious to their welfare. We then
look at the latest quick fix by government in the new growth plan, and once
again the remedies proposed treat the symptoms not the cause. Shifting wealth
from the top end to the bottom, setting minimum wages and subsidies when
productivity cannot support these, continuing to ignore the intellectual memory
within the older and experienced white work force needed to convey the
established intelligence to the new (now intensified BEE) are particular
elements that are evident. Added to this are the historical experiments of closing
of the teachers’ training colleges, stopping the apprenticeship schemes, letting
the SETAs run as self indulgent institutions, removing the core skills that had
the experience of running the engineered infrastructure in order to meet
transformation objectives (read up the statistics on the SA Navy and municipalities
alone), adjusting downward the academic “pass rates” for PDIs and our
infamous belief that we could make OBE work. The impact of these experiments made
by government and each new minister in the education and skills domain are responsible
for the mess we are in. Why did we play down the age-proven needs of teachers
that can and do teach, schools that are equipped, and focus on learning discipline?
Real per capita wages have been and are falling for the bottom end of the work
force, and rising at the top. Why? The free market system pays for know-how,
skills and ability to produce. This is also the sector of the work force that
has international mobility in the knowledge revolution.  Some of the bigger employers will, even with
some resentment, only train their skilled workers. They will rely on the state
to provide the basic skills to those that do not have them. So I ask, how, within
this scenario, do we expect to reduce unemployment by 50% by 2014? The system
dynamics in this model indicate that it will actually increase. Basic education
thinking in government is so misguided that statements made recently that all
school children will have a laptop in the next few years need to be measured
against the fact that some 20,000 schools do not have desks or chairs at
present, only 15% of the total of 24717 schools have science labs, and we have
few teachers that are qualified to address the basic subjects sufficiently and
apply discipline in learning. Are parents playing their role or simply leaving
it to the teachers?

The political elite send their children to private schools and are paid by the taxpayer as a result of a manipulated system of indulgence at high income levels that does not equate with their
delivery of working systems to the voters.  The British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in
the early 60s was once asked what he thought of the future of Africa when
colonialism was in full swing, but which was resented by the Africans. He accordingly
remarked that “there should be a wall built around Africa and every 100 years
or so remove a brick to see if there had been any progress”.

SA has made fatal errors and continues to do so and must ultimately face a political explosion. Various scenarios are projecting this possibility. From world experience in the evolution of economic systems,
it is statistically inevitable. For those who think it will not happen and do
nothing to help action a change, it will provide them with interesting political
science observations if nothing else. For those interested in the continued
survival and success of SA and its democratic structures, it appears to me to
have been and still is an awfully risky set of experiments. Is it ever recoverable
or are we heading the way the rest of Africa has gone, and has ably shown us,
is the continent of the lowest standards and the almost endemic inability to
develop and maintain a built environment without outside intervention? Is the
ANC so pre-occupied with its own identity and dominance that it cannot even
copy systems where educational success has been achieved in countries which had
masses of uneducated citizens that can now compete in low wage, high tech industries?



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