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Saturday wall of text: what's the matter with the South African education system?

In my long tradition of blithe opining about of vast swathes of the world, I'm going to take a crack at the South African school system. The problems here are evident: of the roughly 1,600,000 students that entered Grade 1 twelve years ago, more than two-thirds didn't even make it to sit for the matric test (the one that earns a diploma). Of the ones that sat for the test, about 60% passed, and only about 30% passed with high enough marks to enter a university. This last group thus comprised about 7% of the original 1,600,000.

Disclaimer: there is a huge difference between the tiny minority of wealthy well-staffed schools and the rural schools where I have the most experience. Yet I believe it's not absurd to generalize my experience at least partially across rural schools throughout South Africa regardless of province or culture.

Let me first tackle the curriculum. Probably the biggest problem with the South African education system (and throughout SA generally) is implementation. They have here a curriculum that is jaw-dropping in its ambition and scope, but what happens in the classroom bears only the slightest resemblance to what is in the policy. Many teachers are unqualified (probably even a majority in maths and science), and often don't even try to teach the few things that they do know.

This curriculum (called RNCS--the Revised National Curriculum Statement) was adapted from the latest in outcomes-based education (OBE) from Western Europe and the US, and carries the full weight of a similar bureaucracy in those countries. Here we have all the foot-dragging, CYA, procrastination, and endless meetings that one finds in the worst kind of organizations in the US with almost none of the attendant competence that would make it function. This lack of competence is crippling in a system that presents educators regularly with labyrinthine logistical problems. It ends up that even the better educators spend a large amount of classroom time organizing the various documents they need according to the (often changing) policy.

(On a side note, I do think a national curriculum is a good idea. The US almost has a de facto one already in that most states just follow a few states like Texas--though it has decreased somewhat in the age of digital publishing. It seems odd to let Texas have that kind of influence without a national discussion--and especially because they are prone electing fundamentalists who try to erase the "liberal bias" from reality.)

A related problem is that educational standards have been raised been too fast. To take a population that had been systematically denied reasonable education for 50 years and stuff them into a Western-style program is not likely to work. Most schools end up failing so badly that they do worse than if they had aimed a bit lower--basic multiplication is often beyond the reach of Grade 12s. Note that I'm not saying South Africans would be incapable of learning the curriculum, rather that effective learning requires many educationally-primed institutions, and not just schools and educators. Parents, libraries, and even just baseline culture play a part. (As an Indian-descent person at PST said: "I'm going to be bold. We don't have a culture of learning in this country.") One of my students with the proper resources could easily excel, but it's going to take a couple of generations being successfully educated before rural South Africans are ready for RNCS.

So there's a problem with the curriculum going too far, too fast. But I also think it's just too damn hard. South Africa's national standards are far more demanding than the average state curriculum in the US. Though I am often disgusted with the ignorance of Americans and wish our math and science standards could be tightened up, the amount of material one is expected to master here to get a high school diploma is ludicrous. In math and science (the areas I'm most familiar with), the standard is knowledge of college freshman (and occasionally sophomore) material--in chemistry, physics, biology, and maths.

Perhaps there are some countries that can manage that, but South Africa isn't one of them (neither is the US), and I don't think it's strictly necessary in order to have a decent education system. (I didn't learn half that crap at my rural public high school, and I'm not completely brain-dead.) I think deep-down they know that, so they put the passing percentage for the matric test at 30% and give that vast science material very cursory treatment (the math isn't quite as bad). One can't learn calculus based physics and calculus at the same time (or it would be damn hard, anyway) so instead here they learn all the results of calculus-based physics without actually doing any derivations. There's a similar treatment in chemistry, where periodic trends, atomic characteristics, and bond theory are mostly ignored in favor of batteries and soap. Not only is it basically impossible to choke down that much stuff, it isn't even a good preparation for the real discipline in college or as a professional, where the process is often more important than the results. A much narrower science curriculum that went into a few interesting topics like astronomy or quantum physics in detail would be more successful, and would inspire a greater interest in science than I've seen. Literally every single graduate of high school I've met here despises science.

The last point I'm going to touch on is the culture of entitlement that has sprung up here. Protests, sometimes violent, for lack of services are common. I see this in the schools, where at the drop of the hat the students will organize to protest a minor change, and where the teachers will protest as part of a general strike. I also see it in the anger from beggars and tsotsis here, like I owe them my possessions.

Obviously I'm treading a fairly fine line here. I don't want to infringe on people's right to organize and protest the government for a redress of grievances. I've often felt that in the US, there is far too little mass demonstration, and what is there is often ignored by the media. Yet I feel South Africa has the opposite problem. Last year, in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, municipal workers struck for a 15% pay increase, rejecting an 11.5% increase. Where this causes problems for education might be called "employee capture," where the education system is configured with the maximum benefits for the educators, not the learners. By some definitions South Africa is in the top five spenders on education, most of it on salaries. Unions have made it quite difficult to fire teachers here (though there have been some changes to that recently).

The problem of how to solve these problems is a bit more than even I am willing to bite off today. Any suggestions?


  1. Why do you say US curriculum is lead by TX (sure, they run the textbooks, but I'm not sure what this has to do with standards, etc.), and why do you say that OBE has something to do with US/Western ed (NCLB and OBE are both based on tests, but anything else?). Also I wonder how the SA educational results compare to in America...I remember at IST we were all discussing how dismal SA was before someone googled and found similar results of US education. This is stuff I've done some research on as of 1-2 yrs ago in the US so I'm curious to know where your thinking is coming from here. :)

  2. Well, it used to be that since Texas was about the biggest unified textbook market in the US, many other states would just follow their lead with the standards as well, since the textbooks were built for the standards, and developing a curriculum is a pain. That's not really true anymore with publishing being so much easier, and sort of ancillary to the point anyway. I just wanted to state my preference for a national curriculum and link to that bizarre stuff about the fundamentalists on the Texas state school board.

    I was fairly certain that OBE and NCS were basically borrowed from Western-style models in Europe and the US since that what's I've heard from dozens of people here, but I can't seem to find a definitive source for that.

    US school results are pretty poor, particularly in math and science, compared to the rest of the industrialized world. The only test results I could find offhand with both the US and South Africa shows the US far behind most rich countries but South Africa much further behind.

    It wasn't my intention to compare the US system very favorably with the SA system. If we wanted to look at the best schools, I suppose the Netherlands or Japan would be the places to go.

    One thing I forgot to mention in the post is the interrelatedness of social problems--if the Netherlands had a 23% child poverty rate like the US, their education system wouldn't be nearly as good.

  3. I question whether standards *have* been raised, or whether they just have on paper while in truth, the exams continue to be written so that more students can pass, a "dumbing down" that serves no one--Mamphela Ramphele has said that she was better educated under Bantu education than children currently are in SA, and many of my friends here say the same.

    The problems move with the students to the university level. I am a TA at UCT where students rarely know how to think for themselves, construct an argument, show any original thought--they know how to memorize and regurgitate because that is what the matric exams reward. American students studying at UCT compare it to summer camp. And this is the nation's premiere university.

  4. I reckon you've got a point there, but not so much in low standards as the passing grades are ridiculously low. I've seen the test, and I think it's fair to say it's very hard compared to, say, the American SAT. Still, 30% is not very many right answers.

    When I spent some time at the University of Pretoria, I wasn't too impressed with the quality of instruction (though I was only there one day). I would be very interested to hang around UCT and see how it feels.

    Also, I don't doubt your experience, but American professors and TAs very often say much the same thing about the products of the American education system. (Of course, we're not doing that hot ourselves.)

  5. I'm a product of American universities so I'm sure that's true in many places. I think part of the difference is that there are relatively few universities here, and the push for transformation at the university level without a concomitant effort at the primary/secondary level leads to classrooms where you have students who have been at schools without libraries or labs side by side with students who went to prep schools. It inevitably compromises the quality of the education. The level of class discussion, for example, is really elementary and derivative compared to what I experienced at Wellesley and Harvard. Professors assumed a baseline of capability and could teach accordingly, which they cannot assume here.

    It all goes back to how if you don't change things at the kindergarten level, you're doing everyone a disservice by trying to change them at the university level.

    Because the matric exams are subject-specific and you can choose which subjects to sit where the SAT is not, I wonder if a better comparison would not be the SAT subject tests (do they still offer those?) or the AP exams in particular subjects. I'd be interested to know how they stack up.

    I haven't seen the maths matric exam but I have seen the English one, and it's less difficult than my high school English midterm.

  6. I think we're in agreement for the most part. Clearly the best schools in the US provide a top-notch academic atmosphere; most of the complaints I hear come from larger public schools. I have no complaints about Reed (at least in terms of academics). Your perspective from the university level is interesting, and makes a lot of sense considering the overall quality of secondary school here.

    However, I do think there has been a major push to improve the primary/secondary education system, it's just that it has been basically a total failure (which might be what you were saying). It's the kind of "run before you can crawl" sort of problem that South Africa has everywhere. Seems like Mbeki and company thought South Africa needed a world-class education system, so they adapted a Western curriculum, and when it didn't work, they just lowered the passing grades so they wouldn't be failing 80% of the students every year. I guess I was trying to say that the curriculum is simultaneously too hard and broad, but the actual passing standards are too low. The worst of both worlds.

    I can't speak to the English test—I've only seen the maths and science one—but again, it's way too much material covered in an illogical and haphazard way. From my hazy recollection of the SAT II chemistry (which I studied for but did not actually take), the questions were a lot harder, but the amount of material was quite a bit less. Certainly very little organic chemistry, at least back then.

    I say the curriculum should be drastically simplified (focusing on the three R's first and foremost), and the tests should be more focused on critical thinking types of things rather than huge breadth of material.

  7. I agree entirely. One of the things that I'm curious about is how Mugabe turned around Zimbabwe's education system. I don't know a ton about Zim's history compared to SA's, but as I understand it, Mugabe also inherited a population that had been kept largely uneducated and illiterate, and within a generation he turned Zimbabwe's educational system into the best one on the continent. I think their literacy rate is above 90% (or was, before the brain drain occasioned by current conditions led many to seek asylum overseas). I'm not sure why he was able to do what SA seems unable to do. It seems like that model is worth investigating.

    Another thing I've become deeply ambivalent about is mother-tongue education. I'm sure you're familiar with the big push for it, and I'd be interested to know what you think about it; while I know the languages are protected in the Constitution, it seems to me it's better to institute a one-language policy from the time of school entry, because kids can learn a language by immersion in less than a year. As I understand it, part of the problem with this is that there aren't enough fluent English-speaking teachers to teach in English. But since kids have to sit their exams in English, and they need to be fluent in English to do well at university (even the traditional Afrikaans-speaking universities, Pretoria and Stellenbosch, are now offering classes in English), it seems like doing kids a disservice to educate them in Sesotho, for example, for the sake of cultural preservation if it limits their future opportunities. But I may be oversimplifying the argument.

  8. I'm not really sure what happened in Zimbabwe, but on first blush I suspect that the educational outcomes here just got lost in the scramble for patronage. There's a lot more bribes and cushy government jobs to be fought over.

    I think you have a point about the 11 national languages. I've talked to many people that say that was a mistake, and that Namibia (which has only one official language and lots of "recognized" ones) had a better polic. However, I can say that the current policy is not being followed in a lot of rural schools. All classes are supposed to be taught in English starting in Grade 4, and they are commonly taught in the mother tongue up to Grade 9 and beyond. A good first step would be making sure that policy (which would be pretty tough for a lot of teachers) is universally implemented.

  9. That should read "better policy" above, eish.


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