Maths pass rate mis­un­der­stood

De­part­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion has only re­duced the pass rate to 20% for pupils who won’t con­tinue to study the sub­ject, writes

CityPress - - Voices - Mary Metcalfe

The past week has seen in­tense de­bates on the state of ed­u­ca­tion around the coun­try. The con­text was a clum­sily man­aged cir­cu­lar to schools from the de­part­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, re­in­forced by early press state­ments, that gave the pub­lic the im­pres­sion that the maths pass rate had been low­ered to 20%. There was a crescendo of out­rage. That the maths pass rate had not been low­ered could not be heard in the tu­mult.

My un­der­stand­ing of the de­part­ment’s cir­cu­lar is that it pro­vides guid­ance to teach­ers on the mat­ter of pro­gres­sion (or pro­mo­tion) of pupils who are not go­ing to study maths to ma­tric level.

The cir­cu­lar in­di­cates that pupils who achieve a pass rate of 20% in grades 7 to 9 can­not pro­ceed to study aca­demic maths in Grade 10. If maths is the only sub­ject that they fail, they will be al­lowed to pro­ceed to the next grade even with a fail in maths as they will drop aca­demic maths at the end of Grade 9 and pro­ceed with maths lit­er­acy in Grade 10. This seems sen­si­ble be­cause to make a pupil re­peat a whole year to im­prove their mark in a sub­ject they will not be study­ing in the fu­ture seems ill-ad­vised.

As I lis­tened to and oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­acted with the rage, four things struck me:

Firstly, how deeply hurt many South Africans are at the in­ad­e­quate progress we are mak­ing in ed­u­ca­tion, and in maths per­for­mance in par­tic­u­lar. Foun­da­tions are poor from the first years of school­ing, and maths per­for­mance de­clines to an alarm­ing level in the early years of high school.

In the 2013 An­nual National As­sess­ments, the av­er­age of pupils in Grade 3 was 49%, in Grade 6, it was 38% and in Grade 9, it was 13%. The of­fence of the per­cep­tion that the pass mark was be­ing low­ered touched the painful mem­ory of the in­sult of Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd and its con­se­quences: “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European com­mu­nity above the level of cer­tain forms of labour ... What is the use of teach­ing the Bantu child math­e­mat­ics when it can­not use it in prac­tice?”

This anger and dis­ap­point­ment must be­come a pro­duc­tive force of so­cial mo­bil­i­sa­tion and re­solve to de­ci­sively change this his­toric legacy. Govern­ment must de­velop sound poli­cies to ad­dress this real cri­sis – strong in­sti­tu­tions to de­liver these poli­cies, and it must com­mu­ni­cate these clearly. And the pub­lic must hold govern­ment to ac­count in do­ing so.

The sec­ond thing that struck me in the de­bate is how lit­tle key fea­tures of the new ed­u­ca­tion dis­pen­sa­tion are un­der­stood.

If we are to hold govern­ment ac­count­able on its pol­icy choices and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of them, we need to be bet­ter in­formed about key pol­icy build­ing blocks. For ex­am­ple, it is not un­der­stood that, be­fore 2012, the ma­jor­ity of pupils who passed ma­tric did not do any maths at all, but that since then pupils not do­ing aca­demic maths are com­pelled to do maths lit­er­acy.

The third thing that struck me was how the de­part­ment had missed an op­por­tu­nity to talk to teach­ers about the ed­u­ca­tion ar­gu­ments in­form­ing their in­struc­tion.

The cir­cu­lar was signed by the di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the de­part­ment on De­cem­ber 2, a mere three days be­fore schools closed for pupils and pre­sum­ably af­ter mark sched­ules and re­ports were com­plete. It con­sisted of nine para­graphs of tech­ni­cal instructions. The clos­est any sen­tence came to pro­vid­ing an ed­u­ca­tional ar­gu­ment to ed­u­ca­tional pro­fes­sion­als was that the cur­rent “pro­mo­tion re­quire­ments … may im­pact neg­a­tively on a high num­ber of learn­ers”.

There was no re­quest to teach­ers to un­der­stand the guide­lines as a frame­work to as­sist in mak­ing pro­fes­sional judge­ments in the best in­ter­ests of each pupil. There was no ap­peal to teach­ers to base their pro­mo­tion de­ci­sions on the cir­cum­stances of each pupil, and to en­gage in pro­fes­sional dis­cus­sion with col­leagues as to the readi­ness of the pupil to suc­ceed in the next year and the ed­u­ca­tional im­pli­ca­tions of this.

Most strik­ing was that there was no guid­ance given as to the con­se­quences for teach­ers’ work of pro­mot­ing pupils with in­ad­e­quate maths foun­da­tions into the next year. More pupils in grades 8 and 9 will have weaker maths un­der­stand­ing next year, and teach­ers will re­quire re­sources and train­ing that en­able them to pro­vide dif­fer­en­ti­ated sup­port.

De­ci­sions about pro­mot­ing a pupil or hold­ing them back can­not be based on arith­metic cal­cu­la­tions, but on the pro­fes­sional judg­ments of teach­ers, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion should deepen this ca­pa­bil­ity and con­fi­dence.

The fourth thing that struck me was the num­ber of voices from ed­u­ca­tion­ists en­gag­ing pub­licly in this de­bate. Sara Muller, a maths teacher, wrote an ex­cel­lent piece used in sev­eral elec­tronic pub­li­ca­tions.

What can be learnt from this in­tense and an­gry de­bate? There is a sim­mer­ing dis­con­tent with the state of ed­u­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly our poor maths per­for­mance. This en­ergy can be a pow­er­ful pro­duc­tive force if fo­cused on strate­gies for de­ci­sive and sys­temic change. The oc­ca­sional splut­ter­ing of out­rage and the ap­por­tion­ing of blame is fu­tile.

We need a national dis­cus­sion on ed­u­ca­tion chal­lenges that leads to a clear and shared pro­gramme of sup­port­ive ac­tion and ac­count­abil­ity. This car­ries an obli­ga­tion to be in­formed and build un­der­stand­ing.

It is my view that more teach­ers must con­trib­ute pub­licly to these de­bates, share di­verse views and ex­pe­ri­ences, and push the ed­u­ca­tion project and the chal­lenges teach­ers face to the fore­front of national con­cerns. From deeper pub­lic un­der­stand­ing will come in­clu­sive so­lu­tions, and fo­cused ac­count­abil­ity. Metcalfe is a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Wits Univer­sity and

for­mer Gaut­eng ed­u­ca­tion MEC

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