Monthly Archives: September 2015

Reading to some purpose


  • If I had to recommend one book that could change the way you view the world, “Seeing Like a State” would be it. Sociology, Political Science, History and Economics all wrapped into one compelling explanation of the world that we see. Taking a month off to digest this would be an excellent use of almost anyone’s time IMHO.
  • Fascinating LRB article reviewing “Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.” Another amazing LRB article shows a breadth of knowledge that is absolutely astounding. From Weber and Durkheim to Israel, Gorbachev and Confucianism. A long but satisfying read!
  • Social Foundations of Education” 2011 University of Michigan course outline by Ball and Cohen. Looks like an incredible course.
  • Word of the week: ‘Nomenklatura‘ “a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level government positions are drawn, especially from a Communist Party”
  • Important new (2015) research article “Teacher Supply in South Africa: A Focus on Initial Teacher Education Graduate Production” by RESEP’s Hendrik van Broekhuizen. Exhaustive. Meticulous. Important. My take home point is that we win or lose the initial teacher education battle with UNISA!
  • Dr Linda Zuze writes an interesting article “Desperate to be Digital” where she unpacks a demand from COSAS “We must get tablets just like the Chinese students.” Also  see the BBC article “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, say OECD.” I am a little wary of these bivariate scatter-plot type comparisons of countries that do well and also a bunch of other things and then saying that those things cause the good performance, but nevertheless an interesting article.
  • There’s a new book by Hanushek and Woessman (2015) titled “The Knowledge Capital of Nations” – see Lant Pritchett’s review here (thanks Elbie!)
  • “Is our determination to achieve excellence in reading skills in our children killing their love and enjoyment of a good book?” This is the question asked by Ryan Spencer in his article “Reading teaching in schools can kill a love of books” (via Lilli Pretorius). Also see this article by Donalyn Miller titled “Cultivating Wild Readers” (via Sarah Murray)
  • An article from a month ago on DBE-SADTU relations by Leanne Jansen that some might of missed: “Motshekga said Sadtu was “more bullish” in the Eastern Cape because of the “culture of chaos” in that province, and within its education department. “Corruption plays a major role in destabilising the sector. Structures like Sadtu don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. “It’s about patronage, access to government tenders … It’s deeper than being disruptive for the sake of being disruptive … It is leadership in provincial education departments to a large extent. There is Sadtu in the Western Cape, why is it not behaving the way it is behaving in the Eastern Cape?
  • Corrupting Learning: Evidence from Missing Federal Education Funds in Brazil” -via John Aitchison

Goodbye for now South Africa


I am currently sitting in JFK airport en-route to San Francisco and drinking 4 espressos to re-align my internal clock and stay awake until a reasonable hour. So I suppose this is a good time to fill everyone in on my plans for the next year and a half. From now until the end of 2015 I will be a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University in California. I’ll be taking some courses while I’m here and also finish up our (RESEP’s) ‘Binding Constraints in Education’ project which we’re currently doing for the SA Presidency and the E.U. Needless to say I’m really excited to be spending time at Stanford and I do intend to blog about my experience here.

The second piece of exciting news is that I’ve been awarded the OECD’s Thomas J Alexander Fellowship for 2016. That means I’ll be working on PISA data and focussing on developing countries. The broad aim is to find meaningful ways of integrating access (enrolment) and quality (learning) in education, along the lines of my earlier work on sub-Saharan Africa. I’ll be based at the OECD headquarters in Paris from January until July next year and then back at Stanford for the last 4 months of 2016.

As much as I have loved my time in South Africa to date I am also ready to get some international perspective and work on other developing countries for a while. There are 2 main reasons for this. In order of priority: (1) I think that many developing countries are experimenting with bold and innovative reforms with long-term strategic leadership, something that is sorely lacking in South Africa where it often feels like we are simply tweaking things at the margin. I want to understand what they are doing, what’s working and how they got it going. I am especially interested in the Brazilian case. (2) It’s not a wonderful feeling when some people you are trying to help – in this case the South African educational bureaucracy – portray you as part of the problem when in fact you are trying to help. I know that parts of the Department are open to research, and I have been encouraged by two recent speeches by the Minister of Basic Education, but there is a clear hostility towards those of us in the research community that highlight to the public just how bad the situation really is. I still do not believe that the powers that be understand the true severity of the crisis in education, because if they did we would not be continuing with things in a business-as-usual way. A massive crisis like the one we have requires pretty radical solutions. (As an aside, at the VW Foundation colloquium last week I was encouraged to hear the Minister using the word ‘crisis’ on more than one occasion in her speech – let’s hope that the reforms that are implemented are commensurate with this acknowledgement). The Minister has told us (researchers) that we are on the same page and that we all agree on the problems. Now that may or may not be true, but unless the conclusion is a radical overhaul of the most dysfunctional 30% (?) of our schools, I don’t know that we are on the same page. In these schools there is next to no learning taking place at all, as evidenced by abysmal educational outcomes. Such an overhaul would be costly – financially and politically – but it would send a strong signal that we simply cannot go on in a business as usual way.

Maybe all of the above is par for the course and reform always takes a long time. Perhaps it couldn’t be any other way, I don’t know. Either way I needed a change of perspective and time to think about bigger-picture solutions in S.A., sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world more generally. I also need time and space to figure out what I want to spend my life doing and the kind of person I want to become.

To get perspective you need a break, so I won’t be commenting on all the educational issues in South Africa while I’m away.

I think that my blog may also take on a more personal note as I explore some of the broader, non-immediate issues in education, and in my own life.

Onwards and upwards…


Some links and updates before leaving :)


Before leaving I thought It would be a good idea to do a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ on my blog to update everyone on the things that I know about in the South African education space. Some of these might be very well known but I imagine some of them are less well known. In any event I think it’ll be helpful. If you know of any other ‘useful-to-know-about’ projects please include them in the comments to this post. And just for shits and giggles I’ve included some GIFs 🙂

  • The matric pass rate will drop this year. You just need to look at the gigantic matric cohort that we have this year – in fact, if my calculations are correct it is *the* biggest matric cohort we have ever had! One can only conclude that this is because of the automatic-progression law that’s now being applied to the FET phase. There are 687,230 students enrolled in matric this year, compared to 571,819 last year. Enough said.

ear dear

  • Speaking of matric, let’s briefly touch on the perennial no-brainer that is always politicized and therefore scrapped – testing prospective matric markers. Every year the Minister says prospective matric markers will need to write a competency test prior to being appointed and every year SADTU opposes it and it’s scrapped at the last minute. This article of mine from 2013 is just as true today as it was then, unfortunately. I think this is a good litmus-test of whether the Minister or the new DG mean business. If the research shows that many teachers lack basic content knowledge of the subjects they are teaching and marking – and it definitely does – then we need to be asking why prospective markers are not required to prove they can assess accurately? (except in the Western Cape where testing prospective matric markers has been in place for many years already).

excellent question

  • We now have a new Director General of Basic Education, Mr Mweli. This position has been essentially vacant (i.e. no permanent DG) for more than a few years now. It will be very interesting to see what he chooses to prioritise in his time as DG.

hmm very interesting

  • The results of the SACMEQ 2013 (Gr6) national testing and the TIMSS-Numeracy 2014 (Gr5) study should be released soon. As an aside South Africa is seriously thinking about taking part in PISA-for-Development in 2017 which will be great – more on that in the future (I’m working at PISA next year). The SACMEQ 2013 results are very important. I am really looking forward to seeing what they show.

kittens looking

  • The for-profit sector will continue to grow rapidly in South Africa in the coming decade, largely because the majority of public schools are dysfunctional. The ‘low-fee’ sector will grow the fastest as entrepreneurs and investors see the potential for huge growth and massive returns (with or without State subsidies).

a dollar makes me holler

  • See my presentation to the IEB on for-profit schooling in SA here. To give you an idea about the growth of Curro students/schools, for example, see the graph below:


that escalated quickly

  • Nick Taylor, one of the education champions in South Africa, is pushing ahead with his Initial Teacher Education Research Project (ITREP) – see here. It aims to identify to what extent we are producing teachers who are better able to address the challenges of schooling. The initial results have found especially damning results for university’s existing teacher training programs. Hopefully the positive energy and attention will lead to reform. Nick is also involved in a cool (and important) project aimed at creating communities of practice for Primary numeracy and literacy researchers in South Africa. Both of which show serious promise.


  • The education technology space in South Africa (and in the world generally) is booming. Billions of Rands have been allocated to technology in both Gauteng and the Western Cape. I have been meaning to write an article about this for a long time but haven’t got around to it yet unfortunately. In light of this move we would all do well to read this chapter “Computers in schools: Why governments should do their homework.” But we will go around the mountain one more time and check for ourselves. Because how do you know if it’s a dead-end until you’ve tried it?


  • Well, maybe because everyone else tried to do exactly what we are proposing to do and it didn’t work? If you’re not teaching teachers how to use the tech (and doing it properly in a hands-on, in-classroom way), budgeting for maintenance and most importantly evaluating the project (to figure out if it’s actually working) then it’s pretty much doomed to fail. As they say in the chapter above “The evidence so far is quite persuasive that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of software may yield low returns” (p169). Importantly we should be asking where these budgets are coming from. Is it wise to be spending billions in untested, unevaluated technology when we still have 500,000 disabled students out of school? (see my presentation to SANASE AGM here).  I’m all for using tech in meaningful ways but this isn’t that, this is basically “Let them eat iPads.” (also see this NYT article, “Can you have too much tech?“).

got any other bad ideas (stark)

  • On a positive note there is a really important Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) currently underway in the North West, Kudos to the DBEStephen Taylor, Brahm Fleisch, Nompumelelo Moholwane and their team for initiating this one. See here for a write-up about it. It’s basically trying to find the best way of teaching reading in the early grades, testing alternatives against each other to find the one with the biggest impact and the most-effective alternative. For those not familiar with the RCT methodology, read this document written for the UK Parliament. I am really looking forward to the results from this study. They have important ramifications for how we ‘teach’ early grade reading in South Africa.


And then some of my ‘usual’ links:

  • Presentations from our Quantitative Research in Education conference. Many of these papers have been developed into full articles and will be available in a special issue of the SAJCE –Priorities and Policy-making in South African Education – which should be out later this year. In the mean time I would strongly recommend going through Gabrielle Wills’ presentation on the principal labour-market in South Africa. She estimates that due to the ageing profile of principals that there will be 7000 principal replacements between 2012 and 2017 in South Africa. That’s enormous.

idea explosion

hell to the no

  • The Auditor General of South Africa has released their special report on the Education Sector in South Africa – see here.
  • One school in California has decided to ban grade-based promotion and has moved to a performance/competence criteria for promotion. Interesting, innovative, forward-thinking. More of this please…
  • The New York Public Library has put 20,000 high-res images of maps online and makes them free to download (via Kelsey).
  • Before deciding on your opinion about racism (or the lack thereof) at Stellenbosch University (or the Open Stellenbosch movement) watch this 30-minute documentary about the experiences of 32 black students at the University. My thoughts on this: (1) The current pace of transformation is too slow, (2) the current culture at the University is experienced as exclusionary by Black students, (3) While not its explicit aim, the current language policy at SU has the effect of excluding many Black students from quality higher education (in a country where such quality higher education is rare), (4) these issues will not go away until deep, meaningful and sustained reforms (which will be difficult) are implemented at the University, (5) disciplinary hearings and expulsions for protesting students is *totally* the wrong approach to deal with this (one wonders who is advising those in management?!). Watch the documentary for yourself and let me know what you think…

stellenbosch graduation photo

Some presentations I’ve given in the last 2 months:

That’s all for now.


Im outta here