Monthly Archives: April 2016

Black youths are NOT educationally worse off than 20 years ago – Dr Stephen Taylor

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Figure 1: Proportions of the population achieving secondary education (left) and a bachelors degree (right). (Source: Stats SA (2015): CENSUS 2011: A profile of education enrolment, attainment and progression in South Africa, page 41.)

On the 18th of April the Business Day published a piece titled, “Black youth less educated now than 20 years ago.” This statement is simply wrong and unsupported by any data set. Yet the story is now gaining momentum and has been published by other news outlets, such as the Daily Maverick, reporting that “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents.”

The article asserts that “black and coloured youths have regressed in their educational achievements” and that the proportion of black and coloured youth that complete a university degree as a share of the population has decreased. This is factually incorrect.

The article references a recent Stats SA report on the status of the youth as well as comments by the Statistician General, Pali Lohohla, as the basis for these assertions.

But in fact, the Stats SA published reports (as with all other analysis I have seen or done) indicate that the proportions of black and coloured youths who attain grade 9, grade 12, and a university degree, have all increased consistently in recent decades and are still increasing. It is thus not clear where this misconception arose.

I suspect the mistake may have arisen through a misunderstanding of a statistic which has been presented by the Statistician General recently and which appears in Stats SA’s report on educational enrolment, attainment and progression (December 2015). The statistic shows that the proportion of black and coloured youths who achieve a bachelors degree “after completing grade 12” has been declining over the last 20 to 30 years.

It needs to be understood that this statistic is the proportion of matriculants who go on to attain a degree. In other words, the denominator in this calculation is matriculants as opposed to the entire black and coloured population.

The improvement in matric attainment among black and coloured youth has been larger than the improvement in degree attainment among black and coloured youth, but – and this is the important part – there have been big improvements in both. The fact that the increase in degree completion has been slower than the increase in matric completion is not at all an indication that youth are worse off now than 20 years ago.

So the ‘bad’ news is that degree completion, although it has increased, has not kept pace with the fast increase in the attainment of matric amongst black and coloured youths. But this certainly does not mean that educational outcomes are worse than 20 years ago.

So what do the numbers actually say? The Stats SA report issued in December shows that the proportion of black people completing matric has been consistently increasing from about 20% to about 50% over the last 50 years. That report also indicates that the proportion of black people completing a degree has increased from about 2% to about 4% over the same period.

Whether you read official Stats SA reports or do your own calculations on the various Stats SA datasets – I have analysed Census data from 1996, 2001 and 2011 as well as General Household Survey data from 2002 to 2014 – it is clear that both matric attainment and degree attainment has been increasing amongst the black and coloured population.

It is also useful to consider the Department of Basic Education’s matric statistics from recent years. In 1990, there were 191 000 matric passes. By 2015 this number had more than doubled to 465 863. This increase has been driven mainly by growing numbers of black youth passing – and this growth has easily outstripped population growth, which has been about 1% a year. Even since 2008, the number of black matric passes has increased from about 250 000 to over 350 000. And the number of black people achieving a bachelors pass in matric has increased from about 60 000 to about 120 000 since 2008.

I am by no means suggesting that everything is fine in our education system. Despite the progress, there are still too many youths who do not get to grade 12, the main reason being that educational foundations laid in earlier grades have been inadequate. And completion rates at our higher education institutions should worry us. But there have been improvements in both of these areas relative to 20 years ago.

Although improved access at lower levels of education (primary and secondary school completion) has been faster than access at higher levels, paradoxically the solutions must focus on the early grades if sustainable progress is to be made.

The most alarming education statistics to me are the low proportions of children achieving basic literacy and numeracy in the early grades. International assessments of education quality point to serious deficiencies in this area, even compared to some other countries in the region. If children are not learning to read in the early grades, they will not be able to make it to higher education.

But even in the area of learning quality, the evidence points to improvement. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMSS) showed substantial improvements in mathematics and science achievement at the grade 9 level between 2002 and 2011. However, this improvement is off a very low base.

Educational outcomes in South Africa remain far too low, especially amongst youths from poor communities. But claims that education was better under apartheid or that outcomes have deteriorated over the last 20 years are alarmist and have no basis in reality.

Dr Stephen Taylor is a researcher in the South African Department of Basic Education. His work includes impact evaluation of education interventions, measuring educational performance and equity in educational outcomes. In 2010 he completed a PhD in economics at the University of Stellenbosch, analysing educational outcomes of poor South African children.

(This article first appeared in the Business Day on Friday the 29th of April 2016)



Reading in FP Seminar (28 April, JHB) space available :)


I’m currently involved in a number of research projects that look specifically at reading in the Foundation Phase in South Africa. In my view this is the cause of (and solution to) so many of the problems we see in our education system.

I thought it would be a good idea to get some of the SA reading researchers  in the same room to talk about the work they’re currently doing and talk about the way forward. So we’ve organized a half-day workshop for the 28th of April (8:30am-2:30pm). It will be an informal seminar of researchers and should be relatively small (<40 people) to make sure we have time to interact.

Prof Elbie Henning at UJ has kindly offered to host the workshop at UJ (as an aside I am now a part-time research fellow at her SARChI Chair).  See the programme below. There are a number of exciting presentations, perhaps most exciting is early feedback from Stephen Taylor et al’s RCT in the North West!

The good news is that we have additional space for 5 or 6 additional participants who would like to attend. So if you’re involved in reading research, teaching reading teachers or policy-making in the Foundation Phase and would like to come on the 28th please send me an email (nicholasspaull[at] with the title “Reading in FP Workshop.” Please also include a paragraph about who you are and why you’d like to attend.

Time Presenters
08:30 – 09:00  Morning tea and coffee
09:00 – 09:20 Nic Spaull, University of Johannesburg/OECD

Reading in the Foundation Phase – introduction, welcome and overview

09:25 – 09:45 TBD
09:50 – 10:10 Deborah Mampuru, University of South Africa

Reflections on the development of the African language DBE Workbook series

10:15 – 10:35 Elizabeth Pretorius, University of South Africa

Oral Reading Fluency and other components of ESL reading: What we know and what we still need to discover

10:40 – 11:00 Stephen Taylor, Department of Basic Education

Preliminary results of a Randomized Control Trial assessing an early grade reading intervention in the North West

11:00 – 11:20

Tea and coffee break

11:25 – 11:50 Elizabeth Henning, University of Johannesburg

Vision for the new NRF SARChI Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Mathematics and Science in the Primary School

11:55 – 12:20


Brahm Fleisch, Wits University

Reflections on large-scale interventions: Overview of ongoing interventions and discussion of the Triple Cocktail

12:20 – 13:20



Carol Nuga Deliwe, Department of Basic Education & Nic Spaull, University of Johannesburg/OECD

Facilitated discussion with everyone on prioritising reading in the DBE – moving from rhetoric to implementation

13:30 – 14:30



Links I liked


    • Civilising in Earnest: Schools and Schooling” – Chapter 18 of Weber’s “Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernisation of Rural France.” An incredibly insightful read about the role that education plays in unifying a country, standardising a language and promoting the dominant culture. A must read.
    • Currently I’m very interested in Catherine Snow‘s research on reading – the way she writes about reading and reading research is both accessible and sophisticated but also totally unpretentious. Start with this article: “Reading Comprehension: Reading for Learning.” I also found an online version of Adger, Snow & Christian’s (2003) “What teachers need to know about language” which looks great.
    • I recently gave a workshop/seminar at Herzlia High School in Cape Town on the topic “Assessment: Helping or Hurting the Academic Project?” where we spoke about new thinking in the assessment space, as well as expanding what we consider the academic project to be; including socio-emotional skills, grit, and 21st century skills (Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication). On this note, NPR published a nice post titled “Non-academic skills are key to success. But what should we call them.”
    • Evaluation of Washington DC’s IMPACT policy (controversial teacher-rating system and concomitant replacement of ineffective teachers) had a positive impact on student outcomes
    • Pasi Sahlberg writes that Harvard grad students (and all others) should be able to write op-eds and not just academic papers. Obviously I agree. Future students consider yourselves notified.
    • BrainPickings covers Krista Tippett’s new book “Becoming Wise: An inquiry into the mystery and art of living.” I thoroughly enjoyed Krista’s interview on Design Matters.
    • Cool  TED Talk by Paulo Blikstein from Stanford on his idea of the FabLab@School at Stanford.
  • The End of the Lecture?” by Peter Struck – “In contrast a good lecture should be designed to make a student work harder to prepare for the following one. It will motivate students to carry on the really hard, self-driven work of teaching themselves. It needs to transform data into knowledge by providing a synthesis and modelling for the students how to do it. It tailors the mass of information on a subject into a comprehensible narrative that picks and chooses, making judgments and subordinating some ideas to others. It animates the raw power of the fresh ideas it conveys. In other words, what makes a good lecture in these new formats is pretty much what makes a good lecture at all. Lectures have always been hard to do well, and we would benefit from more time spent working to improve them, something that will happen only by first resisting anti-lectureism, which, as a side effect, absolves us from the task.
  • Q&A with Angela Duckworth (of ‘grit’ fame) “One thing we’re doing to learn more about what teachers are doing, what works, and how we can scale it, is we are giving grants to teachers. Teachers probably have better ideas than we do about children and how to help them. What they don’t always have is training in the scientific method, measurement, study design, and statistics. What we’re hoping to do is help those teachers test those ideas in ways that might be more systematic than they might be able to do on their own.”


Minding the gap?’ A national foundation phase teacher supply and demand analysis: 2012-2020 – Green, Adendorf & Mathebula (2015)

Abstract: This paper explores the extent to which foundation phase teacher supply meets demand in South Africa, against a backdrop of considerable change in an education system endeavouring to fulfil the needs of a 21st century society while still battling with significant inequalities in the distribution of skills. The primary purpose of the paper is to use recently sourced teacher education data from a range of national databases to determine to what extent state-led interventions are assisting to meet the foundation phase teacher supply and demand challenge. The data, as well as the more qualitative aspects of their context, are analysed at the macro (national) level to present a more nuanced picture of foundation phase teacher supply and demand. The study attempts to move beyond simply basing an analysis of supply and demand on teacher attrition, and takes into account multiple variables that should be considered in supply and demand planning. It also goes beyond simply matching supply to demand in the most recent year for which data is available, to forecasting a future scenario which will need to be planned for. The paper concludes by suggesting steps that should be taken to ensure a better match between supply and demand.

Making Good Use of New Assessments: Interpreting and Using Scores From the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (2015) by Linda Darling-Hammond Edward Haertel James Pellegrino. Important thinking about around new assessments.

Quasi-experimental evidence on the effects of mother tongue-based education on reading skills and early labour market outcomes (Bethlehem A. Argaw∗ Leibniz University of Hanover February 23, 2016)

 Abstract: Prior to the introduction of mother tongue based education in 1994, the language of instruction for most subjects in Ethiopia’s primary schools was the official language (Amharic) – the mother tongue of only one third of the population. This paper uses the variation in individual’s exposure to the policy change across birth cohorts and mother tongues to estimate the effects of language of instruction on reading skills and early labour market outcomes. The results indicate that the reading skills of birth cohorts that gained access to mother tongue-based primary education after 1994 improved significantly by about 11 percentage points. The provision of primary education in mother tongue halved the reading skills gap between Amharic and non-Amharic mother tongue users. The improved reading skills seem to translate into gains in the labour market in terms of the skill contents of jobs held and the type of payment individuals receive for their work. An increase in school enrollment and enhanced parental educational investment at home are identified as potential channels linking mother tongue instruction and an improvement in reading skills.

Double for Nothing? Experimental Evidence on the Impact of an Unconditional Teacher Salary Increase on Student Performance in Indonesia” (Dee et al, 2016)

Abstract: How does a large unconditional increase in salary affect employee performance in the public sector? We present the first experimental evidence on this question to date in the context of a unique policy change in Indonesia that led to a permanent doubling of base teacher salaries. Using a large-scale randomized experiment across a representative sample of Indonesian schools that affected more than 3,000 teachers and 80,000 students, we find that the doubling of pay significantly improved teacher satisfaction with their income, reduced the incidence of teachers holding outside jobs, and reduced self-reported financial stress. Nevertheless, after two and three years, the doubling in pay led to no improvements in measures of teacher effort or student learning outcomes, suggesting that the salary increase was a transfer to teachers with no discernible impact on student outcomes. Thus, contrary to the predictions of various efficiency wage models of employee behavior (including gift-exchange, reciprocity, and reduced shirking), as well as those of a model where effort on pro-social tasks is a normal good with a positive income elasticity, we find that unconditional increases in salaries of incumbent teachers had no meaningful positive impact on student learning

Links I liked and new research

Links I liked:
As part of project we are doing for the EU/SA Presidency, two RESEP-affiliated researchers – Martin Gustafsson and Stephen Taylor – have published important papers extending our understanding of education in South Africa. The first looks at the spatial distribution of teachers in South Africa and pays special attention to post-provisioning, the recruitment and employment of teachers and how policy can be improved in these areas. The second looks at the impact of treating schools to a new provincial administration, exploiting a change in provincial boundaries that led to some schools ‘moving’ into different provinces.
Teacher supply and the quality of schooling in South Africa. Patterns over space and time” (Gustafsson 2016)
  • The paper addresses policy questions in South Africa’s education system using a newly merged 1999 to 2013 panel of data that includes school enrolments by grade, staff details from the payroll system, examination and test results and the geo-coordinates of schools. This combination of data, which is seldom used, at least in developing countries, permits new and important knowledge about a schooling system to be uncovered. Whilst policy conclusions are South Africa-specific, the methods would be largely transferable to other contexts. It is shown that school data can complement official population data with respect to the monitoring of within-country migration and in determining the rate of urbanisation. An approach for calculating the viability of small schools in a context of migration out of rural areas is presented, using assumptions around maximum distance to be travelled by pupils and the degree to which multi-grade teaching by teachers should be permitted. Cost reductions associated with a reduced presence of small schools, and greater economies of scale associated with larger schools are found to be smaller than what is generally assumed. Correlations between pupil under-performance and the under-staffing of schools are found to be higher at the primary than the secondary level, apparently confirming the greater importance of personal interaction with a teacher for younger pupils. Between-school movements of pupils other than those associated with urbanisation are found to be high, and highly variable across districts. This further complicates the allocation of publicly paid teachers. An approach to gauging whether teachers avoid moving to schools on the other side of provincial boundaries is presented. It is confirmed that movement across provinces, which are the employers of teachers, is restricted, creating further obstacles to efficient teacher allocation. It is confirmed that teachers tend to move to better performing schools, but that the performance signals that influence this movement are often inaccurate and a few years old.”

    Treating schools to a new administration: Evidence from South Africa of the impact of better practices in the system-level administration of schools” (Gustafsson & Taylor, 2016)

  • “School examination results are far from ideal measures of progress in schooling systems, yet if analysed with sufficient care these data, which are common in education systems, can serve this purpose. The paper partly deals with how various student selection and year-on-year comparability issues in examinations data can be dealt with. This is demonstrated using South African student-level results, aggregated to the school level, for Grade 12 mathematics in the years 2005 to 2013. This was a period during which provincial boundaries changed, creating a quasi-experiment which is amenable to impact evaluation techniques. Value-added school production functions and fixed effects models are used to establish that movement into a better performing province was associated with large student performance improvements, equal in magnitude to around a year’s worth of progress in a fast improving country. Improvements were not always immediate, however, and the data seem to confirm that substantial gains are only achieved after several years, after students have been exposed to many grades of better teaching. The institutional factors which might explain the improvements are discussed. Spending per student was clearly not a significant explanatory variable. What did seem to matter was more efficient use of non-personnel funds by the authorities, with a special focus on educational materials, the brokering of pacts between stakeholders, including teacher unions, schools and communities, and better monitoring and support by the district office. Moreover, the education department in one province in question, Gauteng, has for many years pursued an approach which is unusual in the South African context, of hiring a substantial number of senior managers within the bureaucracy on fixed term contracts, as opposed to on a permanent basis, the aim being to improve accountability and flexibility at the senior management level.”
  • I have just discovered John Jerrim’s website. He seems like an extremely prolific scholar and has done loads of research on PISA. As important, he seems to be working closely with education policy makers in the UK.
  • Duration of unemployment in youth transitions from schooling to work in Cape Town” (Mlatsheni & Leibbrandt 2015)
  • “Starting together, growing apart: Gender gaps in learning from preschool to adulthood in four developing countries” (Singh & Krutikova, 2015)
  • Durevall, Lindskog & George (2016) – Three approaches all suggest no impact of secondary school attendance on HIV incidence in South Africa #CSAE2016
  • Nice round up of economic research on Africa from the first day of CSAE s well as Day Two and Three.

The Biggest Solvable Problem in SA: Reading


Whenever I travel overseas I am asked the question “What is the biggest problem in South Africa?” And I typically respond, “The biggest problem or the biggest solvable problem?” In the 2000’s the biggest problem was HIV/AIDS. After hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths – the equivalent of a small genocide – the government ceded to the courts and offered life-saving ARVs to those infected with HIV and saved their lives. HIV was, and is, a solvable problem. Unfortunately the three biggest problems in South Africa today – too few jobs, too little growth, and too much inequality – are not easily solvable. And because we don’t exactly know how to ‘create’ jobs or growth, we don’t really know how to decease inequality much further.

Of course everyone has theories about how we can increase jobs, but the evidence is pretty thin. Depending on your political fancy and chosen economic guru there are various concoctions ranging from youth wage subsidies, eliminating red-tape, decreasing taxes, increasing taxes, digging holes, filling holes…you get the picture. Ask the top labour-economists in the country how to create jobs and you won’t get a straight answer (This is partly a provocation to said labour economists to tell us if there is in fact any coalesced consensus). You won’t even get consensus on the next three steps towards finding the answer; which is, incidentally, not a uniquely South African problem. So what to do? I think the best response is to keep cracking away at the problem; experimenting, evaluating, moving forward. But in the mean time we should also be allocating time, energy and resources to solvable problems; those we haven’t currently cracked but have a pretty good idea of how to do so. Epidemic HIV; distribute free ARVs. Crippling poverty; introduce the child support grant. Widespread malnutrition; provide free school meals to most children. The government should be heavily praised for all of these important initiatives.

But the problem I want to focus on here is the fact that most kids do not learn to read in lower-primary school. South Africa is unique among upper middle-income countries in that less than half of its primary school children learn to read for meaning in any language in lower primary school.

Irrespective of how tenuous or strong you believe the relationship is between education and economic growth, teaching all children to read well is a unanimously agreed upon goal in the 21st century. It is necessary for dignified living in a modern world, it is necessary for non-menial jobs, it is necessary for a functioning democracy. It also usually helps with ignorance, bigotry and a lack of empathy. In a modern context illiteracy is a disease that is eradicable, unlike unemployment or inequality. Like polio, illiteracy practically does not exist in most wealthy or even middle-income countries (defined here as basic reading). Illiteracy rates among those who have completed grade 4 are in the low single digits in wealthy countries like England (5%), the United States (2%) and Finland (1%) and less than 50% in most middle income countries such as Colombia (28%), Indonesia (34%), and Iran (24%). It’s difficult to get directly comparable estimates for the whole country but the best estimate from the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) surveys is about 58%. That is to say 58% of Grade 4/5 students cannot read for meaning in any language. And why is Grade 4 a critical period? The South African curriculum (like most curricula) prescribes that in the first three years of schooling children must ‘learn to read’, then from grade 4 onwards they must ‘read to learn’. The fact that almost 60% cannot learn through reading means that these children cannot really engage with the curriculum beyond grade 4. It really isn’t much more complicated than that

Reading for meaning and pleasure is, in my view, both the foundation and the pinnacle of the academic project in primary school. Receiving, interpreting, understanding, remembering, analyzing, evaluating and creating information, symbols, art, knowledge and stories encompasses pretty much all of schooling. Yet most kids in South Africa never get a firm hold on this first rung of the academic ladder. They are perpetually stumbling forward into new grades even as they fall further and further behind the curriculum.

Based on my reading of the academic literature – which may differ from others – there are three main reasons why the majority of kids don’t learn to read in lower primary school.

  1. Foundation Phase teachers (grades 1-3) do not know how to teach reading in a systematic way and pre- and in-service courses teaching this topic are unsystematic, inadequate or nonexistent.
  2. Text-poor environments; the School Monitoring Survey showed that half of schools in quintiles 1-3 (i.e. poorest 60%) had no school or classroom library or even a book corner. (Importantly, research has shown that even when there are libraries they are frequently mismanaged, have inappropriate materials and they are not integrated into reading lessons),
  3. Wasted learning time; A number of South African studies have aimed to measure opportunity-to-learn and have frequently found that less than half of the official curriculum is being covered in the year and fewer than half of the officially scheduled lessons are actually taught. In one study in the North West Grade 6 teachers only taught 40% of scheduled lessons for the year (compared to 60% among schools across the border in Botswana). It is not clear what was happening on the days where there was evidence of teaching or learning.

For me the solution is simple: we need to address these three problems: (1) decide how to teach existing and prospective teachers how to teach reading (as is done all over the world in contexts as linguistically and socioeconomically complex as our own), (2) ensure that all primary schools have a bare minimum number of books and that these are managed effectively, (3) monitor how often teachers are actually teaching and introduce meaningful training first and real consequences second for those teachers who are currently not teaching.

We may not have consensus on how to create jobs or increase growth, but there is consensus on how to teach children to read: with knowledgable teachers who have books and provide their students with enough opportunity to learn. If you want to improve matric, you need to start with reading. It’s not rocket science.

*This article first appeared in The Star on Tuesday the 29th of March 

**Image from here