Bunking teachers fail learners

Teachers bunking lessons with tacit union endorsement is a major cause of learners’ poor academic achievement, a ground breaking study reveals.

The study, a three-way collaboration by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Stanford University in the US and the University of Botswana, also shows that teachers’ weak subject knowledge and their resulting lack of confidence in the classroom are also serious barriers to learner success.

Still to be published, the study compared the maths performances of about 9 000 grade six learners in schools on either side of the North West province’s border with Botswana. The learners were tested twice in the same school year.

“The bottom line is that students in Botswana scored significantly higher on the initial test and made significantly higher gains over the academic year,” the study found.

“Like several other studies in recent years, [this one] tries to identify schooling factors in countries that affect student achievement significantly,” said a draft of the report.

“This research, however, distinguishes itself by homing in on physically proximate, culturally and socioeconomically similar learners attending the same grade in two different school systems.”

The report’s findings were based on data collected on learning, teacher skills, schooling processes and school environments during 2009.

The amount of time scheduled for teaching grade six maths and the time that teachers actually spent teaching was “disturbingly low in both countries but especially low in the North West”, it said. The South African teachers “did not teach 60% of [those] lessons” and the Batswana failed to teach 40% of them.

“Basically teachers say: ‘We bunk classes because we don’t like teaching, and we don’t like it because we’re not confident, and we’re not confident because we’re not trained in the subject’,” said Professor Linda Chisholm, lead researcher for the HSRC on the study.

Chisholm was paraphrasing sentiments expressed last weekend at a workshop for teachers involved in the two-country research.

She added: “They also said that ‘we were trained to be jacks of all trades’ and ‘we have no maths specialisation’.”

The draft report said: “South African teachers are highly unionised with more than 80% of teachers in public schools belonging to unions and the vast majority of these to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union [Sadtu].
Teacher unionism has for three decades been a major feature of the educational landscape in South Africa. It has become so only very recently in Botswana.”

Concerning the impact of unions on learner performance, the study referred to a number of analyses that suggested “in South Africa the expression of teacher unionism at local level constrains the ability of the government to pursue its policy objectives of improving literacy and numeracy and broader educational outcomes”.

That was among the “contextual features that help an understanding of what happens inside classrooms”, it said. Other features included more, and more rapid, curriculum changes in South Africa than in Botswana and widely varying teacher qualifications in both countries.

On teacher absenteeism, the study said: “The low exposure to the curriculum is ... an obvious problem that needs to be corrected if learners are expected to improve their knowledge of mathematics.”

Yet it also recorded that neither principals nor teachers the researchers interviewed considered teacher absenteeism a serious factor. “The fact that this is not widely recognised as a major issue by teachers and principals makes the problem more difficult to solve,” it said.

“Most schools in the South African educational system have plainly and simply organised themselves to produce something that is not student achievement.

“That suggests that our recommendations, evident as they may be to most reformers, represent more than just showing teachers and principals how to improve their effectiveness—it may require changing the underlying school culture from one that places first priority on teacher autonomy to one that focuses much more clearly on making students academically competent.”

The Mail & Guardian asked Nomusa Cembi, Sadtu’s national spokesperson, whether the union recognised that teacher absenteeism from the classroom, often for union meetings, was a factor in poor learner performance.

Cembi said: “We encourage our members to be at school on time but there is time given out [by schools] for us.” On the use of less than half of scheduled teaching time, Cembi said: “We do advise our members to go through [the curriculum]. We encourage them to remain on board.”

Cembi said that Sadtu recognised that the non-completion of the curriculum was a problem but that happened because “our teachers never received proper training”.

“We have been calling for it [an improvement in teacher training] for a long time.”

Ezra Ramasehla, the president of the second-largest teacher union, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said: “Members engaging in union work during school teaching hours is behaviour we totally discourage. The time when the teacher is in front of the class is sacred.”

Chisholm said two features set this study apart from others that involved comparisons between countries: “Those provide snapshots but this one involves measuring learner performance over time. And this study takes us into classrooms and what’s happening there in ways other studies don’t.”

But Chisholm said teachers at last weekend’s workshop “were all also delighted when [Wits University’s] Ingrid Sapire, the maths specialist in the study’s research team, provided some subject content training”.

Sapire showed the teachers what the common errors were in the tests the learners wrote, probed the thinking that would have led to wrong answers and discussed different ways of arriving at the correct answers, Chisholm said.

The teachers’ response “showed us that training in content can be effective—and enjoyable—if it is done well”, she said.

Basic education department spokesperson Granville Whittle welcomed the study, saying: “This research could not come at a better time, following the release of the annual national assessment results [ANA—two weeks ago on numeracy and literacy in grades one to six].

“It will allow us to use those results and strengthen the areas of academic performance that have been highlighted both in the study and in the ANA.”

Referring to the low utilisation of teaching time, Whittle said: “The accountability of all educators remains a concern to us. There are a number of ways in which we are addressing this ... [including] introducing performance contracts for principals and deputy principals to ensure that they clearly understand what their responsibilities are in terms of management and supervision of staff.”

He said the department was “working closely with our union partners to ensure that we observe what President Jacob Zuma refers to as the non-negotiables in education”.

All the unions had committed themselves to the quality learning and teaching campaign, which aimed to promote these non-negotiables, which, for teachers, were defined as “being on time, in class and teaching”, Whittle said.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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