Teachers must be tested

09 May 2013 - 02:58 By Jonathan Jansen

If you went to school at all, solving this math problem will be a stroll in the park: 10 x 2 + (6 - 4) ÷ 2 = ? Yet almost half of South African teachers in a recent study got this wrong and, unsurprisingly, only 22% of learners got the problem right.

Most learners and 37% of teachers fell into the trap of trying to solve the problem by working from left to right. You would be tempted to conclude that our teachers did not go to school, let alone to college or university, where they should have learnt to apply the so-called Bodmas rule which indicates the order in which to solve such operations.

It was drummed into our heads: brackets first (6 - 4), then orders (exponents, for example), followed by division (2 ÷ 2), multiplication, addition and subtraction. But that was then.

This mathematics problem is cited in the 2013 National Education Evaluation Unit report titled "The State of Literacy Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase", and the authors make the rather measured conclusion that "the subject knowledge base in both language and mathematics of the majority of South African Grade 6 teachers is inadequate to provide learners with a principled understanding of these foundation disciplines." They take this finding to the lower grades, the focus of their own report, with the conclusion: "There is no reason to believe that Foundation phase teachers are any better endowed with subject knowledge." I agree.

Our error has been to assume certification is the same as competence. Many of the certificates, diplomas and even some degrees teachers have do not certify competence but rather the completion of a course of study.

Put bluntly, if you sit on your backside for a certain number of hours of training in an NGO centre or a short course from a government department or inside some university classroom, you are deemed competent by passing a formal examination with a mark of 50%.

In recent years the number of certificates for in-service teachers has skyrocketed, and a few universities have amassed considerable revenue with these short-turnaround qualifications.

Very few of these certificates are focused on subject matter knowledge (how much maths do you know?) and knowledge of teaching (how well can you teach geometry?), especially in mathematics and science. Most of these are professional qualifications covering broad areas of education theory.

No wonder about half of our teachers can't do these basic maths problems. But how do you tell a teacher with papers (certificates) they do not know enough maths even for the grade level at which they teach? How do you tell a teacher he or she should be tested for subject matter knowledge despite the paperwork in hand? How do you get past unions that insist their paying members must be assumed to be competent and not subjected to the humiliation of being tested for things in which they were trained?

We have no choice but to test teachers already in the system for one simple reason: we will continue to produce and reproduce the poor learning outcomes in numeracy and mathematics (and in literacy and languages) if we do not intervene directly.

This is a vicious cycle: the teacher has poor mathematics in her school background; she then goes on a certificate course in general education theory; she returns to teach in the early grades with neither good school mathematics as a learner nor solid mathematics training as a teacher; she transfers this mathematical incompetence to the learners; and some of those learners go on to become teachers.

We should, of course, also alter the model of teacher training for beginning teachers. I firmly believe high school teachers should first obtain a degree in the subject (for example, accounting or physics) and then only be taught theory and practice of teaching and learning.

I would like to see every primary school teacher be thoroughly taught in the basic disciplines of maths and languages, for example, and tested for competence at 70% and above before being unleashed on children. All student teachers should be subjected to independent evaluation in classroom teaching before being licensed as a teacher.

For in-service education our model of mentorship by senior, retired teachers with track records of achievement in the subject delivers much better results, faster, than generic training farremoved from the classroom.

Oh, by the way, the answer to the maths question in the first paragraph is 21.