In the past year a debate has developed in educational circles over whether teachers should be tested to ascertain their content knowledge of the subjects that they teach.
This debate has arisen partly in response to small-scale research studies that have shown that some teachers could not pass assessments set at the levels that they are teaching.
The results from the research studies should be seen, first, as an indication of the poor quality of the education provided by most of the former colleges of education and the negative effects of the disruptions to schooling during the struggle against apartheid and the immediate post-apartheid years.
It is also important to go beyond small-scale studies and to profile educator content knowledge on a larger scale so as to make teacher demand and supply strategy more responsive to educator development needs. At the moment, what we know about teacher content knowledge is derived indirectly from educator qualifications and from linking learner pass rates to the educators.
The result is that we plan educator development on the basis of inferential data both at the level of the national education system and the level of the individual educator, as required by the educator performance management system — the Integrated Quality Management System.
We should recognise that the unease of educators and the educator unions with the measurement of teacher content knowledge is not unrealistic at all. We have just stepped out of the apartheid era where the order of the day was victimisation and employer-employee mistrust continues to manifest in many forms.
If competency testing is to be done in such a way as to humiliate and punish educators, as has been suggested by so many commentators, the unions and individual educators themselves will be less likely to cooperate.
But if the intention is to do it for developmental reasons, educators are more likely cooperate — just as they are cooperating in the systemic evaluation, which educators found threatening when it was first introduced.
Similarly, after many years of resistance, educators are cooperating in the practice of lesson preparation, classroom visits and even on the improvement of school functionality, issues which are now largely accepted as “non-negotiables” in discussions between educator unions and the government.
Humanistic approaches that view and respect educators as professionals — as opposed to mechanistic approaches that doubt their commitment and potential — should be assumed in the design of educator competency systems.
In Chile, teacher quality and performance measurements were carried out in a manner that considered both individuals’ own liberties (confidentiality of results, rights to remain employed in all but extreme cases) and the national development imperatives. In fact, in Chile the measurement report presented a “normal curve” in terms of teacher quality and performance. The outcome was an acceptable mix of excellent, competent and basic-level educator performances.
There are a host of advantages to teacher quality diagnosis. At the level of education systems, measurement will:
- help increase the responsiveness of professional development programmes for teachers;
- reduce the number of blanket hit-and-miss interventions that tend to waste the time of those educators who are competent;
- improve the allocation of professional development opportunities to those who need them most; and
- improve the reassignment of educators to subjects that they are best qualified in.
The test results will also be extremely useful to the education system for identifying educators who are capable of serving as professional development tutors, senior certificate markers and enrichment class tutors. Educators also stand to gain from individual feedback on their competency, as they could use it in the planning of their own professional development.
The data on individual educator performance also have the potential to assist the IQMS in individual schools. Lastly, these tests could also be used to confirm the quality of the subject advisors and contribute to determining their legitimacy with educators, a concern the educator unions have raised a number of times.
Looking at teacher quality measurement in other countries can teach us what to avoid. First, we should avoid rushing into summative evaluation used to punish educators performing at low levels. Government should rather embrace the responsibility to get the poorly performing educators on extended development programmes. Obviously, this move can only be effective if we know what is wrong.
Second, we should not link the test results to pay incentives (bonuses, promotions) yet, such a move will arguably cause resentment among a large proportion of educators.
Third, educator evaluations should not be expected to improve learner achievement immediately, but rather to bring the required transformation impetus within each educator and among educators about how they can help learners learn better.
Lastly, all commentators should refrain from making statements that exacerbate the unnecessary hardening of positions among education social partners, particularly educators.
The way forward must be a partnership among all concerned. In this context it will be important that educator unions, in particular, truly commit to this agenda of reclaiming education for the nation. Joint agreements are required on why the testing should be conducted, what will be tested, under what conditions and what the protocols are regarding the use of the testing results. The programme should be piloted to allow for refinements before it is scaled up.
If we are serious about improving the quality of schooling in South Africa, the introduction of educator competency testing must be braved sooner than later. I propose that we profile a significant and representative sample of educators in order to inform the educator development strategy and then continue to test all the educators prior to and after training activities. We should also create opportunities for those who want to test voluntarily to do so whenever they want to. All the nation needs is the determination and the commitment to do what is right and to do it right.
Godwin Khosa is programme director at JET Education Services