EDITORIAL: Maths solution does not add up
South Africans should resist the department’s attempt to make itself look better by sacrificing the education of the country’s youth
The Department of Education is considering removing mathematics as a compulsory promotion requirement of high school students. Have they gone completely mad?
The most passing familiarity with the trajectory of modern history suggests that maths is becoming progressively more important and that without a working understanding of maths, it will be increasingly difficult to operate in the modern world.
The department has not specified why particularly it wants to scrap the requirement, but it’s clear an anomaly has developed in the education system. It appears some students are passing all subjects other than maths and are aggrieved at the requirement that to pass the exam as a whole, they must pass maths.
But it’s not as though the bar is set very high. First, the pass rate for maths is only 40%. In addition, in 2016, a "special condonation dispensation" for maths was applied. According to National Assessment Circular 3 of 2016, pupils who passed all other subjects but failed mathematics with a minimum mark of 20% were condoned and would thus pass mathematics and pass the examination as a whole.
SA’s problems with maths are well known. The country’s performance in international comparisons is just dismal. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released the findings of an international study on the state of maths internationally. The findings, based on the test scores of 15-year-olds from 76 countries, show SA ranked 75th globally, beating only Ghana. Honduras, Morocco, Botswana, Peru, Tunisia, Albania and Lebanon all scored higher. Yet, this country spends more than many of these countries on average per pupil. How is this possible?
The new South African government in the democratic era made three critical mistakes: it introduced "outcomes-based education", which was premised on less rigorous standards; it increased the education budget but spent that increase not on improving teaching, but increasing the number of teachers; and, third, it simultaneously decreased teacher oversight.
The result is that in large parts of SA, typically in rural areas, teachers just don’t know what to teach. In one study, it was discovered that the pupils in a maths class often knew more about maths than the teacher. All efforts to increase teacher oversight are blocked by the teachers’ unions because that would reveal the lie. So the proposed solution is to lower standards. But to do so would be idiotic.
The growing influence and importance of maths is just extraordinary. Maths began as a tool in construction about 2,000 years ago, mainly as a study of geometry, amazingly in different cultures at about the same time. It quickly became a tool for astronomers, which encouraged the development of trigonometry. But maths was really set loose in the 19th century when the utility of increasingly abstract language that maths affords became apparent.
Algebra helped make maths become a critical component of everything from economics to science. In the 20th century, maths became a cornerstone of the digital world and softer sciences, too, like psychology and sociology. It is often said that maths is difficult, but in fact it’s no more difficult than any other abstraction, like any language. The reasons why it is considered difficult often vest in phobias and anxieties passed from parent to child.
The real problem with maths in the South African education system is that it is precise and it shows up problems very precisely. That is what the Department of Education is trying to avoid. South Africans should resist the department’s attempt to make itself look better by sacrificing the education of the country’s youth.