Important new SA education research (SAJCE Special Issue)

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As part of my postdoc at Stellenbosch University and Stanford University I have been managing a large research project commissioned by the SA Presidency and funded by the EU in the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development (PSPPD for short!). The aim is to identify the ‘binding constraints’ in the SA education sector – more on that in the coming months. As part of that project we asked Elbie Henning if we could dedicate a special issue of the South African Journal of Childhood Education (SAJCE) to the research emerging from the project. As the editor she agreed and we asked Nick Taylor (JET) and Thabo Mabogoane (Presidency) to be the guest editors for the special issue. That special issue was published online last week and there is no pay wall (viva open access!). I have included the abstract for each article as well as links to the full text for each one. I would strongly recommend reading Nick and Thabo’s editorial if you don’t have time to read through all the articles. They provide a good overview of the key findings. The research here covers a number of fields ranging from ECD, matric assessment, reading, teachers, principals, and education data.

Editorial: “Policy research comes of age in South Africa” (Nick Taylor and Thabo Mabogoane)

Investment in Early Childhood Development (ECD) has the prospect of cultivating potential within individuals and can assist in bridging the social equity gap from a very young age. Over the past decade Grade R has been the strongest policy lever used by the Department of Basic Education to improve early learning. The National Development Plan calls for universal access to two years of early childhood development prior to entering Grade 1. This paper explores the merits of this proposal, given the specific South African context. More specifically, this analysis intents to bring new information to bear on three matters. The first relates to the demand-side and aims to identify participation trends among four and five year olds. The second objective is to consider the supply-side and aims to understand the policy space in which pre-Grade R will function, the quality and quantity of infrastructure already in place, and the expertise of ECD practitioners. The final question considers the implementation of a universally accessible pre-Grade R within a constrained system and the requirements to ensure that it will have a significant impact on those children most in need.
Much hope is placed on education systems to reduce socioeconomic learning gaps. But in South Africa, uneven functioning of the school system widens learning gaps.This paper analyses education performance using ANA data. Weak calibration and inter-temporal or inter-grade comparability of ANA test scores limit their usefulness for measuring learning gains. However, relative performance provides meaningful information on learning gaps and deficits. A reference group that is roughly on track to achieve the TIMSS average is used to estimate the performance required in each grade to perform at TIMSS’ low international benchmark. By Grade 4, patterns across quintiles of on track performance approximate matric exemption patterns. Viewed differently, academic and labour market prospects may be bleak for children who are no longer on track. Improvement in outcomes requires greater emphasis on the Foundation Phase or earlier, before learning deficits have grown to extreme levels observed by the middle of primary school. This statement is true whether deficits arise from weak early instruction, or simply because a disadvantaged home environment requires early remedial action. The emphasis on the early grades that this analysis of the ANAS suggests is contrary to the conclusions drawn from the ANA results by policy makers, that weak test scores in Mathematics in Grade 9 require major interventions in that grade.
The ability to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. One integral component of learning to read is Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), defined as the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with meaningful expression. Although widely acknowledged in the literature as important, to date there have been no large-scale studies on ORF in English in South Africa, despite this being the language of learning and teaching for 80% of ESL students from Grade 4 onwards. We analyze data provided by the National Education and Evaluation Development Unit (NEEDU) of South Africa, which tested 4667 Grade 5 English Second Language (ESL) students from 214 schools across rural areas in South Africa in 2013. This included ORF and comprehension measures for a subset of 1772 students. We find that 41% of the sample were non-readers in English (<40 Words Correct Per Minute, WCPM) and only 6% achieved comprehension scores above 60%. By calibrating comprehension levels and WCPM rates we develop tentative benchmarks and argue that a range of 90-100 WCPM in English is acceptable for Grade 5 ESL students in South Africa. In addition we outline policy priorities for remedying the reading crisis in the country.
This study analyses information and feedback from matriculation level continuous assessment in the South African education system. Continuous assessment (CASS) at the time carried a 25% weight in the final matriculation (Grade 12) mark, and it provides feedback that affects examination preparation and effort. Weak assessment in schools sends wrong signals to students that may have important consequences for the way they approach the final examination. Moreover, similarly wrong signals earlier in their school careers may also have affected their subject choice and career planning. This study compares CASS data to the externally assessed matric exam marks for a number of subjects. There are two signalling dimensions to inaccurate assessments: (i) Inflated CASS marks can give students a false sense of security and lead to diminished exam effort. (ii) A weak correlation between CASS and the exam marks could mean poor signalling in another dimension: Relatively good students may get relatively low CASS marks. Such low correlations indicate poor assessment reliability, as the examination and continuous assessment should both be testing mastery of the same national curriculum. The paper analyses the extent of each of these dimensions of weak signalling in South African schools and draws disturbing conclusions for a large part of the school system.
In the past decade there has been a notable shift in South African education policy that raises the value of school leadership as a lever for learning improvements. Despite a growing discourse on school leadership, there has been a lack of empirical based evidence on principals to inform, validate or debate the efficacy of proposed policies in raising the calibre of school principals. Drawing on findings from a larger study to understand the labour market for school principals in South Africa, this paper highlights four overarching characteristics of this market with implications for informing principal policy reforms. The paper notes that improving the design and implementation of policies guiding the appointment process for principals is a matter of urgency. A substantial and increasing number of principal replacements are taking place across South African schools given a rising age profile of school principals. In a context of low levels of principal mobility and high tenure, the leadership trajectory of the average school is established for nearly a decade with each principal replacement. Evidence-based policy making has a strong role to play in getting this right.
This research makes use of hierarchical linear modelling to investigate which teacher characteristics are significantly associated with student performance. Using data from the SACMEQ III study of 2007, an interesting and potentially important finding is that younger teachers are better able to improve the mean mathematics performance of their students. Furthermore, younger teachers themselves perform better on subject tests than do their older counterparts. Identical models are run for Sub Saharan countries bordering on South Africa, as well for Kenya and the strong relationship between teacher age and student performance is not observed. Similarly, the model is run for South Africa using data from SACMEQ II (conducted in 2002) and the relationship between teacher age and student performance is also not observed. It must be noted that South African teachers were not tested in SACMEQ II so it was not possible to observe differences in subject knowledge amongst teachers in different cohorts and it was not possible to control for teachers’ level of subject knowledge when observing the relationship between teacher age and student performance. Changes in teacher education in the late 1990s and early 2000s may explain the differences in the performance of younger teachers relative to their older counterparts observed in the later dataset.
This paper provides an overview of the various datasets pertaining to education in South Africa that are informing or could inform policy making in education. The paper serves as an inventory for anyone interested in understanding what data is available, how it may be accessed, what the quality of the data is and in what formats it may be accessed. The paper is divided into three parts. The first part provides a description of existing education datasets and the basic data elements contained in each of these datasets. When discussing each of the existing education datasets, the paper addresses the quality of the education data available in South Africa. The first part also refers to the policy implications and the important role that data plays in policy-formulation. No information system on its own is comprehensive enough to provide all the information needed in strategic decision-making. Hence, part two of this paper discusses the need for data integration as an important data management strategy. The third part examines the effectiveness of implementing a learner unit record system nationally in comparison with the EMIS system that is currently in place and that is based on aggregate or summary institution–level data.

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The full Special Issue can be found here.

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