Don’t be caught up in the folly of celebrating ‘dead’ education

One night, a long time ago, I went to the home of a Cape Flats family who belonged to a charismatic church, to share in their bereavement; the beloved mother of the house had died after a long illness.

Professor Jonathan Jansen.
Professor Jonathan Jansen.

I was convinced I had knocked on the wrong door, for by the sounds of it there was a raving party going on inside.

When the door opened, to my utter surprise, it was the family and friends of the deceased singing and dancing in the house. “Welcome Brother! Come inside. Mommy is in a much better place where there is no pain and suffering… Glory, glory, glory!”

I had exactly the same feeling of bewilderment last week.

Towards the end of November last year an international assessment of primary school maths and science placed South African learners last or second last in the world when compared to other countries. This was a serious tragedy for a nation that invests more in public education than almost any other country with similar (or poorer) economic
standing.

Sackcloth and ashes?

Nope. Barely a month later politicians were literally singing and dancing on stage to celebrate the National Senior Certificate pass rate.

What on earth (or wherever) is going on?

If you have any common sense you do well to ignore this political spectacle when it comes around every year. Wait for a few days and then you will hear the independent experts – not the ones paid to spin official data – starting to tell you why you were in fact attending a funeral and not a celebratory party.

Listen to South Africa’s foremost educational statistician, the young Nic Spaull; pay attention to the practical wisdom of the experienced Nick Taylor, who understands malfunction in the grammar of schooling better than most; and read between the lines when the highly accomplished mathematician John Volmink tells you that what was once simple is now complex for senior high school learners.

It is a funeral because more than half the learners who started school did not finish school.

It is clear that the standards of achievement are now so low that to fail requires a considerable effort on the part of the learner.

In several places students who are likely to fail are held back; “culling”, Spaull reluctantly calls it.

Mock examinations ensure you have seen some version of the question before; no surprises will be tolerated.

Boot camps are convened across the provinces to ensure that last-minute knowledge is pumped into your head.

And even when you fail as an individual, there is an across-the-board, upward adjustment of the subject pass rate so that many more students pass than is merited.

In a normal school system it is acceptable of course to adjust raw marks in a subject from one year to the next if there is a significant difference in aggregate learner performance compared to historic years.

No problem with that. An examination set in, say, geography, could be unreasonably more difficult than one written in the previous year.

But what if the raw mark adjustment is in fact intended to compensate for system failure? That is, if the cohort of learners coming through from primary school to high school are academically weaker because of serious dysfunction in the foundation years – as shown in those international assessments of late last year.

So how does one reconcile the disastrous primary school results (the funeral) and the increase in the NSC percentage pass (the party)?

Too few students reach Grade 12; the few that get there clear a low standards hurdle; and those who do not are assisted through the adjustment of results.

How do we fix this?

Develop a 10-15 year plan to systematically improve initial learning in reading, writing and numeracy starting in pre-school and the foundation phase.

This means training and re-training primary teachers with the basic competence for grade teaching; developing assessments to prove they can teach; licensing competent teachers for a five-year period; withdrawing from the classrooms those who cannot teach; attaching an experienced mentor to clusters of primary teachers; keeping out unions from disrupting even one day in the school year; and holding trained teachers accountable for results.

But even before that can happen, a turnaround strategy requires honesty from the politicians about the state of the dead.

So to our political masters: If you do not like funerals, go to a night club. If the noise is too much, go to a cemetery. But please do not tell the public that a funeral is a party.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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