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‘Teachers will baulk at tests’

A plan by the department of basic education to test teachers voluntarily on their subject knowledge has been met with mixed reactions.

The department, as part of a pilot project, wants 20 000 maths and English first additional language teachers, as well as 4 000 physical science and accounting teachers, to submit to a diagnostic, self-assessment test to determine their ­training needs.

But the initiative, which is outlined in the department’s recently released annual performance plan, may not receive the blessing of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union. Its deputy general secretary, Nkosana Dolopi, said the ability and expertise of teachers “must never be doubted”, because they are qualified professionals who had studied at universities and colleges.

“When you start doubting teachers by bringing in these diagnostic [tests], it becomes problematic. We would have to understand the rationale behind bringing these tests.”

The objective of the test is to measure teachers’ content knowledge and assess their teaching methods to provide focused teacher development programmes.

One of the limitations of the programme will be the willingness of teachers to volunteer. Although it planned to test a total of 40 000 maths and English first additional language teachers between April 2015 and March 2016, only 487 English and 653 maths teachers took part.

At least 270 grade eight maths teachers were earmarked for testing after the Pearson Group donated more than R58 000 for this purpose but only 181 were eventually tested at a cost of R45 100.

In the past financial year, the department reduced its target for the testing of maths and English first additional language teachers from 20 000 each to 10 000 each.

Physical science and accounting teachers will, for the first time, be asked to volunteer this year.

Dolopi said: “We will not oppose any attempt to assist teachers to improve in terms of their competencies but we will have a problem when people deprofessionalise the profession by bringing in instruments that will not assist or enhance the professionalism that we all deserve.”

Basil Manuel, the executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said his union did not object to teachers volunteering to take a test but added that there must be a good reason for it.

“We want to know what you do thereafter. Are you going to put together a credible training programme? We don’t want a programme where you have somebody standing in front and just rambling on from a book.”

He said teachers, if asked to take the test, would say they were committed to their job, adding: “Nobody wants to be known as the teacher whose children fail. They [teachers] don’t necessarily see their own weaknesses. They will tell you, ‘I taught maths for the last 10 years’.”

Manuel believed that there would be a “fair” take-up of the test if teachers could be shown that they will gain from training that is directed at needs that are identified.

“The biggest problem is that teachers have not been trained in the last 10 years. There has been no concerted effort to train them, not in content knowledge but in pedagogy or the different methods of teaching. Nobody is equipping them in the right way, certainly not the department.”

Nic Spaull, an education researcher based at Stellenbosch University, also questioned how the department planned to act on the results of the test.

“Let’s say that the teacher does identify that he has a lack of content knowledge in a particular area. What then? There are no courses available to these teachers to raise their content knowledge that are shown to be effective.

“Without having an intervention that then follows on from identifying that you have a content knowledge gap, what is the purpose of doing the assessment? Does the department have a set of plans, not just tips for teaching, that’s going to address these fundamental content know-ledge gaps?”

In a paper Spaull co-authored with Professor Hamsa Venkat from the University of the Witwatersrand, they found that 79% of grade six maths teachers, who wrote a test similar to what their pupils wrote, displayed very poor content know-ledge of the syllabus.

Researchers Thokozani Mkhwa­nazi and Sarah Bansilal from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Deonarain Brijlall from the Durban University of Technology, who co-authored an article in an education journal, found that maths teachers obtained an average of 57% in a test that was based on a shortened version of a matric maths paper. 

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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