Rushing curriculum reform again

Next year the new school curriculum and assessment policy (known as Caps) will be implemented in the foundation phase (grades one to three) and grade 10.

Although Caps is not officially a new curriculum, the changes are sufficient to require new textbooks—again. Textbook writers and illustrators are desperately working to meet the June deadline for the textbooks to be submitted to the national department of basic ­education for approval.

There is something very familiar about this scenario of publishers rushing to meet very tight deadlines—it has happened every time the curriculum has been revised since 1997. In that year the then education minister, Sibusiso Bengu, released the new “Curriculum 2005” plan, which was implemented the following year with a very short lead-in time.

When Kader Asmal became minister of education in 1999, he instituted a review of Curriculum 2005, which led to the so-called “Revised National Curriculum”.
This again led to tight time frames for publishers to rework textbooks so that they would be ready in time to meet the implementation dates. And exactly the same thing is happening again with the revised Caps.

Policy research shows that it simply does not work to rush the implementation of curriculum reform. And yet it happens anyway. The reason most frequently offered for this is that the politics of education reform wins over the pedagogy of reform. Indeed, in South Africa Naledi Pandor has been the only one of the four post-1994 ministers of education who did not launch a new curriculum or institute a curriculum review. This may have been because a new curriculum for grades 10 to 12 had already been planned (under Asmal) for implementation in 2006 during her term of office.

Ministers of education are under pressure to show that they do something constructive and transformative during their term of office. Curriculum plans are relatively easy to change, particularly when compared with the huge complexity of changing school organisational cultures or teachers’ professional behaviour or deepening their conceptual knowledge of the subjects they teach.

And even that looks easy when one considers the challenge of transforming the social context in which many schools are located—the unemployment, the high poverty rates and high incidence of HIV/Aids, all of which affect learner achievement and wellbeing.

So changing a curriculum plan can seem like a good thing to do and it is often necessary. It is clear and measurable. And, once there is a new curriculum, the job of the bureaucrats is to ensure that an implementation plan is in place. It does not seem to matter if the implementation plan is actually feasible. And so we get ridiculous time frames, which force publishers to plan, write, edit, lay out and illustrate textbooks in five months (the draft Caps was released in January this year).

Rushed time frames aside, what are the odds that the Caps change will actually bring about the envisaged quality in education that we are all hoping for? Much of the curriculum and classroom research in the country points to the need for curriculum documents to describe much more clearly the sequence and progression of knowledge within a subject.

This was one of the purposes of the Caps process: to provide coherence and strengthen knowledge within the curriculum. This has been achieved to varying degrees for different subjects. But it will be interesting to see whether the new textbooks reflect this stronger knowledge focus. In the past textbooks were evaluated by the education department primarily on whether they reflected the learning outcomes and the assessment standards specified in the curriculum, not necessarily on the depth and coherence of knowledge.

The department of basic education has not yet released the new criteria that will be used to evaluate textbooks.

With each curriculum change, we rush to train teachers to “teach the new curriculum” and rush to publish new textbooks that need to be closely linked to the specifics of the new official curriculum plans. This leads to a huge wastage of money and resources. An alternative would be to write secondary-school textbooks for each discipline that cover all the key school topics.

These could become reference books for students to use in the last three years of their schooling (grades 10 to 12). So, for instance, if the Cold War moves out of the grade 12 curriculum and needs to be taught in grade 11, we won’t need to write new textbooks.

In the past cathedrals took centuries to be built. The architect and the initial builders often did not live to see the cathedral completed. We need to take a “cathedral mentality” to transforming our education system and slow it down so that we can do it properly. The problems are so deep-seated and complex that they cannot possibly be fixed by rushing curriculum reform yet again.

Dr Carol Bertram is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She writes in her personal capacity

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