IMF report slams SA’s education folly
Costly, politically expedient interventions will not fix SA’s dysfunctional education system; we must tackle the root causes of the problem
Without addressing the weak foundations at the primary and secondary school levels, the government’s flagship policy of free tertiary education is likely to deliver disappointing results. At worst, it will prove downright wasteful.
This is one of the hard-hitting conclusions in a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper, "Struggling to Make the Grade: A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Weak Outcomes of SA’s Education System".
The authors, the IMF’s senior resident representative in SA, Montfort Mlachila, and Wits PhD student Tlhalefang Moeletsi, note that the government has had limited success in addressing the problems in education.
The paper, which reflects their views and not those of the IMF, aims to provide a data-driven, evidence-based approach to inform the national debate as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to improving education.
They find that there is broad consensus internationally as to which interventions work best: pedagogical interventions that improve the way work is taught; individualised, long-term teacher training; and accountability-boosting measures, such as teacher performance incentives.
In the SA context, the researchers conclude that improved teacher training, better school management and greater teacher accountability will likely have the greatest effect on educational performance in the long term.
In the short run, they suggest good-quality textbooks be made available and homework be assigned more frequently.
The paper starts from the premise that inadequate funding is not the main cause of SA’s poor-quality education; how that money is spent is the central issue.
SA spends about 20% of the national budget and 6% of GDP on education, exceeding that of many Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, as well as the OECD average of 5.2%. However, many SSA countries achieve far better educational outcomes than SA does.
In fact, in terms of the relationship between the amount spent per pupil and pupils’ performance in maths, science and reading, SA is just about the most inefficient country in the world, and certainly much worse than countries with similar levels of wealth.
"The central message is that throwing money at education problems does not unconditionally lead to better outcomes," says Mlachila. "There is always a need to complement input-based policies and interventions (like better school sanitation and the provision of electronic tablets) with initiatives to enhance school management, increase teacher accountability, and improve pedagogy through continuous training and mentoring."
Unfortunately, political economy considerations usually favour input-based policy measures, the authors say, because they are visible and can be more easily "captured" by politicians, "who love ribbon-cutting".
This finding has serious implications for SA’s free tertiary education initiative — a classic example of a highly visible, politically expedient intervention, and one that is adding R20bn annually to SA’s education budget.
The authors argue that while providing free university tuition should improve enrolment and attendance, the payoff "is likely to be limited at best, and wasteful at worst" unless SA addresses the weak foundations at primary and secondary school — which result in more than a quarter of university and college students dropping out in their first year.
"This is not to say that there are not many academically qualified but poor students in tertiary education who deserve help; no doubt this is crucial for this segment of the population. But a large proportion of the tertiary education population come from middle-class and well-off households. They can largely afford the fees outright, or they can repay the loans after getting their degrees," says Mlachila.
The authors accept that the causes of SA’s poor quality of education are complex and multifaceted, and that legacy factors rooted in apartheid are a significant part of the problem.
Today, the education system is still bimodal: the poorest 75%-80% of pupils depend on dysfunctional public schooling in townships and rural communities and achieve poor outcomes, while the wealthiest 20%-25% enrol in private and functional public schools and achieve better academic outcomes.
"Moreover, while management in these [dysfunctional] schools tends to have limited capacity, according to the literature, what is most worrying is the fact that teachers from these schools tend to have lower subject content knowledge and few systems to hold them accountable," the paper notes. "This challenge is exacerbated by the political influence that teacher unions have in the education system."
In predominantly black schools, teachers teach an average of 3.5 hours a day compared with about 6.5 hours a day in former white schools
Unions, it states, have resisted accountability-boosting reforms by, for instance, refusing to take part in some international benchmarking tests of teacher content knowledge. This is worrying, given that the poor content knowledge of teachers is an important contributing factor to SA’s poor educational outcomes.
While SA teachers are well-compensated by international standards, they have lower subject content knowledge than their peers in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania, according to some studies.
"Indeed, they are even sometimes outperformed by learners they are supposed to be teaching," states the paper. "This is clearly troubling since teachers cannot pass on knowledge that they themselves do not know."
However, Stellenbosch University education researcher Nic Spaull says this is not the biggest problem. He is cited in the report for finding that low accountability and poor management overshadow the impact of teachers’ weak content knowledge in schools in poor communities.
On average, an SA teacher misses 11% of teaching time due to absenteeism, according to the paper. Roughly 20% of teachers are absent on Mondays and Fridays, and 33% are absent at month-end. In predominantly black schools, teachers teach an average of 3.5 hours a day compared with the average of about 6.5 hours a day in former white schools.
"SA teachers have few systems that make them accountable for the academic performance of learners," says the paper.
"Low accountability and teacher effort are often regarded as SA’s greatest challenge in education."
So how can the problem be fixed?
Mlachila says there has been improvement in some quality indicators over the past decade, largely as a result of the government’s curriculum & assessment policy statement (Caps).
"The initiative rightly focuses on a number of issues that we think are crucial to improve performance. These include teacher subject knowledge, better teaching guides, and higher-quality textbooks."
In addition, the paper suggests that SA introduce performance pay to increase teachers’ accountability, reward good teaching and attract the best candidates to the profession.
There is considerable international evidence to support this approach, including from Chile and Brazil, which have introduced performance-pay systems based on teachers’ content knowledge.
This means the government would have to enforce the testing of teachers. While this might make becoming a teacher less attractive, the authors believe it could provide "a useful filter" for who enters the profession.
Alternatively, the government could base teachers’ pay on their pupils’ performance in externally moderated national benchmarking tests. However, this approach is likely to be strongly resisted by trade unions, as pupil performance is undoubtedly affected by environmental factors outside of teachers’ control.
The same argument has stymied attempts to hold school principals accountable for school performance.
But the authors disagree. They recommend that poorly performing principals be given targets to meet and be replaced when they fail to do so. The underlying assumption is that competent principals should be able to improve pupils’ performance to a certain level, irrespective of environmental factors.
At the same time, the paper recommends SA consider implementing more intensive, continuous, and localised teacher training.
What it means
Throwing more money at education is not the answer
Spaull welcomes this focus on teachers. "Unless we fundamentally improve the way that teachers are selected and trained, we cannot improve our education system," he says. "No education system moves beyond the quality of its teachers."
However, the authors acknowledge that there is no single "silver bullet" to fixing the problem, and that often it is when interventions are packaged together that the best results are achieved.
For example, the Gauteng primary language & mathematics strategy, introduced in 2014, has raised pupils’ numeracy scores through interventions that combine scripted lesson plans, the provision of high-quality instructional materials and conventional teacher training with one-on-one instructional coaching.
Though many of the recommendations in the paper are likely to be politically unpopular, one thing is clear: SA cannot forever avoid addressing the root causes of its dysfunctional education system. Not only is the general low quality of education a central source of inequality, it is also placing a cap on the country’s growth rate.
While the authors were unable to find any published work on the relationship between economic growth and education in SA, they found plenty of international evidence to suggest SA’s historically low structural economic growth may in part be due to poor outcomes in education.
According to Spaull, the report is the latest from an international organisation such as the World Bank or OECD to find that "the education system is really the binding constraint to long-term economic growth".
Fixing the system may be "a long-term process", he says, "but it needs to start somewhere".
Similarly, the report’s authors warn that until SA addresses the persistent disparities in the levels and quality of education by race and socioeconomic status, the economy will continue to be plagued by high levels of racialised inequality and poverty.