Monday, June 13, 2011

Most Children Left Behind: Education in South Africa

South Africa, compared to the rest of the African continent, is developed, wealthy and well-governed. So why does its education system consistently underperform, even and especially when compared to such kleptocratic basket-cases as Zimbabwe? There are a thousand potential explanations, but there are a few in particular that I've gleaned from my experiences as an educator in this country.

By far, the biggest issues are social and involve the break-down of the family unit. Children are abandoned or orphaned, with alarming frequency, at a young age. If they are lucky and taken in by a neighbor or relative, instead of forced into miniature adulthood, they often live a Cinderella-like existence. Except sadly, their prince never comes. In most cases, using children as little more than free labor is not a malicious act, nor a necessity. Instead, it springs from a lack of modern parenting skills. Case in point, several neighborhood children and I spent an afternoon drawing pictures. One child, five years old and infinitely pleased with his scribblings, took his picture to show his adoptive mother. She picked it up, glanced at it and threw it away. He was crushed. The same inattention that is paid to childish drawings is also paid to schoolwork. Children frequently receive no parental feedback regarding their progress, and so naturally begin to view the whole endeavor with the same indifference as their caretaker. While children lucky enough to live with one or both parents may suffer similarly, in my experience biological parents are willing to invest more in the education of their offspring. For example, my host mother's biological children all went to boarding school while her adopted children are stuck in the village schools.

Unfortunately, regardless of the level of parental involvement, many South African schools manage to fail their learners all by themselves. Within the four walls of the average classroom in this country, the biggest obstacle faced by learners is often the educator. Teacher training, in my experience, focuses much too heavily on dealing with the bureaucratic elements of teaching a national curriculum and way too lighly on actual content. Far too frequently I have observed teachers teach information that is factually incorrect. Connecting circuits in parallel has no effect on how bright or dim the lightbulb shines, but I know dozens of students who are convinced it does. Teachers without a solid grasp on content knowledge are doing a huge disservice to their learners, and that has a direct impact on learner performance on national exams.

Granted, being taught the odd bit of misinformation may have little impact on whether a learner passes the class or grade because the passing score necessary is so incredibly low. In my subject, it's 30%. Yes, 30%. You can pass maths literacy with a mere 30%. This is the cause of an enormous amount of trouble. Learners are passed into upper-level courses without a solid grasp on lower-level material. For example, I'm expected to teach linear functions to learners with virtually no understanding of the basics of arithmetic. Because of the pressing and insistent spectre of looming national examinations, there's only so much time available to review before moving on the material to be tested. This is an impossible situation, and cannot be maintained for long. Imagine a Jenga tower where each level consists of only one block. How many levels can be built before it all falls apart, and the learner either fails or drops out? Additionally, the low threshold for passing cheapens the value of school-leaving certificates. Too many learners leave school with just a piece of paper in their pocket, and virtually nothing rattling around their minds after a dozen years in the South African school system.

Such a long post, and I haven't even started in on the curriculum itself! I think I'll save that for another day. Oh, South Africa...

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