“Early action key to improving maths” – my Business Day article


(The article below appeared in the Business Day on the 6th of July 2015.)

Early action key to improving maths” – Dr Nic Spaull

When people speak about the economic importance of maths and science my mind does not immediately jump to technological innovations such as Google, Tesla or SpaceX — all of which are impossible without the mathematical and scientific insight of their founders and engineers.

I am instead reminded of a tenacious African woman, who my good friend and colleague, Prof Veronica McKay, told me about a few years ago. McKay was assigned the mammoth task of developing a government adult education programme (Kha Ri Gude) for those excluded from education under apartheid, especially the illiterate and innumerate among them.

Asked why she had attended the six-month course, one of the participants replied: “Because I wanted to know how to count. I wanted to know when I have enough money to buy things at the shop. Before, I just had to hold out my hand with my money and the man at the shop would take the money and give me back the change. I don’t think he was giving me the right change, but now I can tell.”

SA aspires to much more than basic financial literacy, and the lofty curriculum and policy documents are testament to this.

There are many improvements in education for which the government does not get enough credit. It has implemented a good curriculum, rolled out workbooks and textbooks to almost all students, and launched annual national assessments that will one day provide the kind of useful information we need.

It also provides school meals to more than 8-million pupils every single day. This is no small feat.

Unfortunately, the major failure has been in meaningful teacher development where little has been done. This helps explain the current reality where the vast majority of pupils still do not acquire even minimal competencies in maths and science during their school years.

The most recent reliable international assessment, the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), tested our Grade 9 students on the international Grade 8 test.

To those outside of academia, it is difficult to convey how abysmally low SA’s average TIMSS maths (352) and science (332) scores really are.

They mean that three-quarters (76%) of Grade 9 pupils in 2011 still had not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs and could not recognise basic facts from the life and physical sciences.

Here are some example questions from the test to help illustrate the problem:

  • “Kim is packing eggs into boxes. Each box holds six eggs. She has 94 eggs. What is the smallest number of boxes she needs to pack all the eggs?”

Only 12% of South African Grade 9 students could answer this. The results are poor even in the best-performing province, the Western Cape, which scored 20% on this question, and in the wealthiest 20% of schools where 33% could answer it correctly.

  • “The fractions 4/14 and q/21 are equivalent. What is the value of q?” Only 33% of our Grade 9 students can answer this correctly.
  • Only 61% of Grade 9 students knew that 3/5 is equal to 0.6. This was the easiest question in the test and is covered in the Grade 6 curriculum.

Research that I and others have conducted shows that about 80% of our Grade 9 pupils are achieving at a Grade 5 level in mathematics and that the backlog starts in Grades 1 to 3.

My best reading of the research base in mathematics in SA leads me to conclude that it is ludicrous to focus our efforts on interventions in Grades 9 to 12, when it is clear these learning deficits are already present in Grade 3 — where less than one third of students can calculate a Grade 3-level problem such as “270 + 28 = __”.

Half of Grade 5 students cannot calculate “24 ÷ 3 = ___”.

It is near impossible to remediate four years of backlogs in one or two years. We need to focus on improving the quality of teaching and teacher training in primary schools. The later in life we try to repair early deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes.


Reading to some purpose…


As part of one my research projects we are now focussing on reading in the Foundation Phase (Grades 1-3) and developing a course to train Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading, because, as it turns out, most Foundation Phase teachers don’t actually know how to teach reading (in an African language or in English). We’re getting the best literacy experts in the country on it and developing a world class video-based, year-long, part-time course showing practically what the various building blocks of reading are, why they’re important, how to teach them, and when. It’s still in the concept note phase – and you’ll hear more about it in the next 3 months – but for now here are some great articles and books about reading:

“The Road to Self Renewal”


Every so often I come across an essay that totally changes the way I think about life or what I’m doing. It’s like a mental palate cleanser :) The previous one was this one.  And today I read another: “The Road to Self Renewal.” Some excerpts I loved…

“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character. You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing. Those are things that are hard to learn early in life. As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand. As writer Norman Douglas said, “There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.” You come to terms with yourself. You finally grasp what playwright S.N. Behrman meant when he said, “At the end of every road you meet yourself.

Life is an endless unfolding and, if we wish it to be, an endless process of self discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just success as the world measures success, but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.
For many, this life is a vale of tears; for no one is it free of pain. But we are so designed that we can cope with it if we can live in some context of a coherent community and traditionally prescribed patterns of culture. Today you can’t count on any such heritage. You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments, whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn’t handed out free anymore – not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.
I hope it’s clear that the door of opportunity doesn’t really close as long as you’re reasonably healthy. And I don’t just mean opportunity for high status but opportunity to grow and enrich your life in every dimension.
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account. 

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

What a gem! Full essay here.

Links I liked…


  • On the 7th of July I will be part of a debate with the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga as well as Prof Mary Metcalfe, Sizwe Nxasana and Nadi Albino. If you’re around join us – it should be an interesting debate :) (to RSVP see the invite above).
  • For those of you who will be in and around JHB on 22 June (9am-1pm) come and join us for a conversation about the Annual National Assessments (invite here). I’ll be speaking together with Martin Gustafsson and Caroline Long.
  • Interesting article: “Brahm Fleisch on building a new infrastructure for learning in Gauteng
  • Applications for teacher intern bursaries are due on the 3rd of July 2015 (see here).  Only students studying through UNISA are eligible and the focus is on Maths and English. I really like the internship model of teacher training (i.e. being under a master teacher) and am keen to see this program expand.
  • Beyond benchmarks: What 20 years of TIMSS data tell us about South African education” (Reddy, Zuze et al, 2015)
  • Comprehensive Special Report on Early Literacy by EduWeek (2015) – (Thanks Kim Draper)
  • Someone dies from a shack fire every 2 days. A friend of mine, Frank Petousis, is involved with a social startup called Lumkani which builds small cheap devices which can detect shack fires and alert residents (and neighbors). I’ve donated to their Indiegogo drive to raise $50,000 to cover 3000 shacks. Go check it out!
  • On the 22nd of May 2015 Ireland took to a referendum the issue of gay marriage in the country (watch this video). Citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of granting equal status to gay people to get married (62% voted yes).
  • 100 things to do in Cape Town during winter

A world of languages – and how many speak them (infographic)

languages of the world

From here- http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/17711

Reading to some purpose…


“In an influential 1937 essay called “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist Ronald Coase argued that a firm would grow as long as its internal transaction costs were less than the external costs it would otherwise incur. But in the Bay Area today, Ravikant suggested, the external transaction costs for many things have got so low that there are fewer such economies.

 “For example, in the old days, we’d get breakfast and lunch brought in every day so that the engineers can work and be productive,” he said. “I might have had my office manager do that—essentially, I’ve hired someone who’s spending time doing it. Now we have a zillion different little services who bring that in-house.” The more assured Ravikant got, the faster he spoke; he started rattling off the options available. On the transportation front, “we have our Lyft and our Sidecar and our UberX and our InstantCab and our Flywheel. Two years ago, I couldn’t find a cab in this city to save my life. Now I’ve sold most of my cars and I have five different car services at my beck and call.”

The same systems that make outsourcing of small tasks more efficient have driven down the cost of launching a company. Once, an entrepreneur would go to a venture capitalist for an initial five-million-dollar funding round—money that was necessary for hardware costs, software costs, marketing, distribution, customer service, sales, and so on. Now there are online alternatives. “In 2005, the whole thing exploded,” Ravikant told me. “Hardware? No, now you just put it on Amazon or Rackspace. Software? It’s all open-source. Distribution? It’s the App Store, it’s Facebook. Customer service? It’s Twitter—just respond to your best customers on Twitter and Get Satisfaction. Sales and marketing? It’s Google AdWords, AdSense. So the cost to build and launch a product went from five million”—his marker skidded across the whiteboard—“to one million”—more arrows—“to five hundred thousand”—he made a circle—“and it’s now to fifty thousand.” As a result, the number of companies skyrocketed, and so did the number of angels: suddenly, you didn’t need to be a venture-capital firm to afford early equity.”

The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on life style over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts—only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area today. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

Public-minded kids in San Francisco seem to have that expectation, which is partly why the startup market has had such growth, and why smart people from around the country keep flying in to try their hands at the game. The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.

  • Re-read Keynes’ old quote and was reminded about the power of ideas: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”

“SADTU selling principals’ posts in exchange for cows, sheep and goats” (CityPress article)

I don’t usually repost articles on education but if these allegations are true – and Prof John Volmink’s report should identify if they are – then we really need decisive action from Motshekga or Zuma or someone who actually has power. This is a deal-breaker. You cannot have SADTU running provinces and calling the shots while children suffer as a result.


“Pretoria – Rogue members of teachers’ union Sadtu have “captured” a key provincial education department, which officials in Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s office say is now on the “verge of collapse”.

Investigators appointed by Motshekga to probe the jobs-for-cash racket run by union officials, which City Press exposed last year, have found that Sadtu members have “infiltrated that department and run a complex patronage system” in KwaZulu-Natal.

An investigation commissioned by Motshekga’s office and headed by Professor John Volmink has found that not only is education in KwaZulu-Natal being run by rogue union members, but Sadtu members have been found to have violated the system in the provincial education departments of Gauteng, North West, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

On Monday, Motshekga met KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni and senior officials in her department at OR Tambo International Airport to discuss the crisis.

A senior department official said the provincial department had “collapsed; there is no leadership”.

What investigators found

Other allegations Volmink’s team of 10 investigators uncovered around the country include:

. Evidence that a number of senior Sadtu members in the Eastern Cape have received cows, sheep and goats as payment for several principals’ positions throughout the province;

. That an applicant for a principal post at a Gauteng school approached his district director and showed him an SMS which proved Sadtu officials tried to extort R25 000 out of him in return for the job; and

. A Sadtu official in Limpopo’s Mopani district committed suicide after failing to secure two principal posts for teachers who had paid him R25 000 each. He killed himself after they demanded their money back.

In KwaZulu-Natal they found:

. Sadtu officials demanding that union members be appointed to 37 chief education specialist posts. Union officials insisted the department reduce the educational requirements for the posts from degrees to teaching diplomas;

. Sadtu officials have earmarked candidates to fill 15 senior managerial positions in the Ugu district in Port Shepstone;

. A Sadtu leader who is a junior teacher in the Ethekwini North region became the principal of a large school with two deputy principals in the Ilembe district after falsifying a letter of appointment;

. A senior Sadtu official in Ethekwini North illegally swapped positions with a principal of a large school in Ilembe. The “gentlemen’s deal” was struck because principals of large schools earn much more than those who run smaller schools; and

. Evidence that a school governing body member of a Pinetown school acted with Sadtu members to extort R30 000 from a teacher who had applied for the job of principal.

KZN on the verge of collapse

On Thursday, officials from the basic education department’s legal department were sent to Durban to meet senior provincial officials. Senior department sources with knowledge of the meeting said the lawyers “read the riot act to their provincial counterparts asking them to rein in Sadtu”.

Another official said: “They were very harsh on them, asking why they had not acted on Sadtu’s anarchy over the past two weeks.”

Over the past two weeks, pupils at 440 schools in the Ilembe region on the north coast and 485 schools in Ugu region on the south coast have received little teaching after regional union leaders ordered teachers to protest at district offices.

The teachers, who play loud music and disrupt work at the offices, aim to get rid of the directors.

The protest is set to intensify this week in the Ilembe region, where an unsigned notice from the office of the secretary of Sadtu’s Ethekwini North region – which was sent to members on Friday – states that all members should conduct sit-ins at district offices on Monday and shut down schools completely on Tuesday.

Three sources in the department told City Press that Ilembe district director Thembinkosi Vilakazi was visited by three Sadtu leaders from the Ethekwini North region in August last year. They demanded that she appoint them as chief education specialists in her three circuit offices in Stanger, Ndwedwe and KwaMaphumulo.

“They asked to talk to her and told her she was a comrade and should co-operate with them. They said they were prepared to support her and defend her from her enemies, but only if she gave them the positions. She told them things didn’t work like that and she couldn’t fix positions. She told them the fixing of positions was illegal and was corruption.”

He said the three told Vilakazi that if she did not agree to the deal, they would make her stay at the district miserable.

Vilakazi refused to comment.

Another senior KwaZulu-Natal official said that, while Sadtu had claimed Ugu district director Mfundo Sibiya was unfit to lead, what was at issue were the 15 senior positions advertised in the district.

“The department has endorsed interviewing panels given by Sadtu. Where have you ever seen that? Sadtu asked him to change certain people in the interviewing panels, but he refused,” said the official.

“One of the people they want, a Sadtu leader, is not even shortlisted.” Sibiya refused to comment.

Sadtu denies claims

Sadtu’s provincial secretary, Dolly Caluza, said the protests at Ilembe and Ugu had nothing to do with positions.

“There are issues our leaders are raising with the department and some of them date back to 2011. We are protesting about norms and standards and the allocation of teachers. Teachers are overworked and there is animosity because teachers are overworked,” she said.

Caluza accused Vilakazi of failing to attend meetings to resolve labour issues. She denied the protests were about positions.

Sadtu’s national secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said anyone with evidence of corruption should approach Volmink’s team with evidence.

“One district director in KwaZulu-Natal made allegations – we asked him to submit evidence and he still hasn’t. If they don’t, it will appear that they want to run away from their responsibilities, and use Sadtu’s name to do that. People should be exposed if they are corrupt,” said Maluleke.

Directors fight back

Eight of KwaZulu-Natal’s 12 district directors met in Pietermaritzburg last week and agreed to approach Nkonyeni and Premier Senzo Mchunu to protect them from being intimidated by Sadtu members and the union’s grip on the department.

Sources close to the meeting told City Press that if Nkonyeni and Mchunu did not respond, the directors would appeal to Motshekga and President Jacob Zuma.

One director, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Sadtu is running the department. We have resolved to take the fight to Sadtu. We want support from the premier and the MEC. We need support from the department of education; they must use their power to support us.

“Sadtu doesn’t give a f*** about our children’s education. Education is under siege; it is in the hands of syndicates. The ANC has to pronounce on this; we have reached the crossroads.”

Trouble brews over big jobs

Motshekga’s team’s visit comes as trouble brews over 37 chief education specialist posts.

Three senior officials close to the matter told City Press several provincial Sadtu leaders had publicly stated in meetings they had already allocated the positions to some of their members.

A senior official, who did not want to be named, said: “Sadtu wants the positions, saying they met with head of department Nkosinathi Sishi and persuaded him to advertise the positions.

“They said they would decide who was appointed. They have a list across the province.”

Three senior officials told City Press that when the positions were advertised in August last year, the prerequisite for candidates was a university degree.

But because most of Sadtu’s favoured candidates did not have degrees, the advertisement was withdrawn and the requirements were amended to a diploma.

The posts were re-advertised in March. Caluza denied the union had objected to district directors chairing interviewing panels of the 37 chief education specialist positions.

“We have not objected to directors chairing interviewing panels. We don’t decide who chairs panels, we only observe. Our role is to observe.”

KwaZulu-Natal education department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said the department was concerned about the disruption of classes at Ilembe and Ugu.

“We are engaging the leadership of Sadtu. We have already held three meetings with them. The engagements are so that the right of the child to learn can be protected. We have issued a circular that empowers principals to deal with teachers who are not at school.”

He said the province was confident that things would improve this week.”


From here.