By ianwebster, 30 December, 2010

(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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