How to add for success

06 December 2012 - 02:46 By Jonathan Jansen
NUMBERS SHAME: Recent data has shown dismal results in maths across our education system
NUMBERS SHAME: Recent data has shown dismal results in maths across our education system

NO, DO not take your child out of school, yet.

You could be forgiven for reaching the reasonable conclusion that the longer your child stays in school, the less maths she will know. After all, data from 2012 Annual National Assessments for mathematics in successive grades reads as follows: Grade 1 (68), Grade 2 (57), Grade 3 (41), Grade 4 (37), Grade 5 (30), Grade 6 (27), Grade 9 (13).

The minister's response to this disaster?

"To my director general and his team, thank you for a job well done. I am confident the team will again rise to the occasion as you've done in respect of ANA 2012."

My problem is not with the minister or the entire class of politicians engaged in this game of mass delusion of the people. My problem is with us, ordinary citizens, and our capacity to swallow nonsense of this kind 18 years into a democracy that promised a better education for all our children.

We demand accountability of teachers, but not from those who control R207-billion of expenditure allocated to improve education. We will keep the same people in power no matter how poorly they perform in their portfolios. That says something about us, not about the powerful.

At least this time the ministerial speech did not blame apartheid; there was a more convenient monster at hand: "The system is now safely sailing out of its OBE troubled waters and moving towards safe waters."

If you are impressed by clumsy political poetry, enjoy. If you are in Grade 9, and you are part of the 13% national average for the grade, I suspect you would have choice words for this kind of potty verbiage. So what can be done to improve mathematical achievement?

  • Stop testing children. To be frank, we did not need yet another test of achievement, or rather under-achievement, to tell us there is a serious crisis in mathematics education. The testing should stop or, if absolutely necessary, should be done every five years since the money, energy and time swallowed in these annual exercises are already draining the little capacity teachers still have left in a busy school year. Rather direct the resources and energies available into changing maths teaching and learning.
  • Test teachers (not learners) in every grade to determine their base levels of mathematical competence for the grade in which they teach; unless we bite this political bullet because government is fearful of powerful unions, I promise you the problem will not go away.
  • Use the test data to design mass-based training for all primary school teachers in the basics of mathematics.
  • Close schools for a month at the beginning of every year and immerse all teachers in intensive training in the content and pedagogy of mathematics teaching.
  • Supervise and mentor the weakest teachers through direct observation and feedback in every classroom to ensure they can teach competently following the intensive training provided; a competent maths mentor in every one of the weakest schools who does nothing else would be the most important investment strategy to turn around performance.
  • Remove teachers who, despite intensive training and mentoring, still cannot teach basic maths well and place them elsewhere in the education department's vast bureaucracy, but not in a classroom.
  • Issue a certificate or licence of competency to teach mathematics to every teacher who, after training, supervision and mentoring, can teach at the levels required; no teacher should be allowed to teach the subject without such a real certificate of competence.
  • Generate basic learning materials that allow for repetitive practice (drill, in other words, and to hell with the constructivists and other fancy theorists who believe the answers must be "discovered") in the solution of basic mathematical problems in every grade.
  • Give maths homework every day and give feedback on that homework every morning. Homework is still one of the best strategies for improving scholastic achievement, especially in poor schools.
  • Mobilise parents around every school to become part of the homework as supervisors of time spent on homework every day in maths; in the process, many parents might also learn to do basic mathematics, as in the Family Science and Mathematics programme operating in one university.

These are simple, time-honoured strategies backed by the best research that offer game-breaking strategies to end this stalemate in education. Whether there is the political will to drive such a strategy from the centre is the main question.