Category Archives: Economics

Important new SA education research (SAJCE Special Issue)


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.


The full Special Issue can be found here.



Cultural loci and African intellectuals…


A little while ago a friend of mine and I were discussing the recent increase in the number of countries and American States that have now legalized gay marriage or are in the process of doing so. I argued then, and maintain now, that this increase will continue indefinitely in a monotonic fashion and will most probably also accelerate after reaching a tipping point sometime in the next decade. My friend, being the sensible lad that he is, agreed that this does seem to be an increasing trend rather than just a momentary spurt, but also suggested that perhaps the tolerance and acceptance of gay marriage is really just a function of economic power which is clearly changing and that perhaps the new powers won’t be as tolerant. The economic trajectory of the West is plateauing even as BRIC countries find their feet and begin their speedy ascent. Interesting, I thought, since the changing of the guard could well mean a change in norms and values, and China and Russia (!) certainly do have a different set of values to the U.S on a variety of things, including gay marriage. But the more I got thinking about this I realized that we are nowhere near the zenith of the West’s power and influence as a hundred different examples easily show. I think if we did a global survey of brands, TV shows, celebrities, intellectuals, politicians etc., we would find the West dominates the list by 100 to 1. Of course there are some celebrities from India and Brazil that we all know – Ashwaria Rai, Tendulka, Pele, Ronaldo etc., but I can’t think of any Chinese or Russian celebrities offhand? Does that make me a bad person? Am I just a consumerist cog in the capitalist American machine succumbing to exploitation by patriarchal imperialists?! OK, perhaps a little. But the point remains that the West, and within it largely America, set the tone for the world. Economically yes, politically, yes and most important for this current discussion, America is the global trend-setter and the cultural locus of the world. A cultural version of America sneezing and the rest of the world catching a cold. Chinese elites wear American clothes and aspire to American symbols of status, wealth and power. American elites do not aspire to Chinese anything as far as I can tell. American cultural influence (and more generally Western sensibility) is here to stay, as far as I can tell. Something I am quite happy about as far as gay marriage is concerned.

The reason why I like thinking about these types of questions is that they come back to broader ones about modernization and westernization. In Africa especially, it is difficult to find textbook examples of countries that have managed to modernize rather than Westernize. I think this is probably because the path to Westernization is so well sign-posted and well travelled, with trains leaving every hour on the hour heading towards a clearly articulated and visible goal. In contrast, the path to African modernization in an African way is like bundu-bashing towards a mirage that no one has really seen before. Does the Utopian vision of an African Renaissance include things like democracy, capitalism and gender-equality? Or are these just un-African Western impositions? Some say that Africa needs these things but it needs Africanised versions of them. OK great, but how do you decide what to keep and what to scrap? Inevitably people end up asking: “Why don’t we just adopt the whole package? They look pretty happy over there in America, let’s just do what they do?” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, no? If you dig a little deeper there are many reasons why we can’t and shouldn’t “just do what they do” ranging from national pride, personal dignity and cultural heritage, all the way to linguistic diversity and genuine social, economic and political freedom. But the only people capable of formulating and articulating the African ideals to which Africans can aspire are African intellectuals. They are necessary catalysts. Unfortunately they are in short supply. Where did all the Khama’s and Mandela’s and Nyerere’s go? Where are our 40-year-old public intellectuals challenging Western ideas and (importantly) proposing African one’s to fill their place? We have a few big mouths that love to bash the West but don’t fill the vacuum that their criticism creates. Perhaps they do exist and I don’t know about them? If you know of any young, inspiring African intellectuals please write a comment and post a link to some of their work. This is one time I hope to be wrong…

Education is the key to success.

Education is the key to success

  • The uber-cool, sharp, funny and highly relevant Lant Pritchett (definitely on my top-five-academics list) has finally published his book “The Rebirth of Education: From Schooling to Learning” which I have obviously ordered and cannot wait to read properly. I’ve actually read a good chunk of the book already since Lant put the chapters on his site for comment a while ago already (see here for pre-publication chapters and here for chapter one of the book). If you haven’t already watched his entertaining and informative Young Lives presentation, do yourself a favour and go and check it out (here).
  • Favorite quote of the week: “There are few policy questions to which improving the quality of education is not a reasonable answer” – well said! Economist article on the value of good teachers
  • Peggy Nkonyeni is the new MEC for education in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa’s most populous province). For background information on the appointment see this DailyMaverick story.
  • What a week of groceries looks like around the world (via Esther Etkin). Perspective is everything.
  • For a laugh watch this video on scaring potential employees 🙂
  • Last year Alistair McKay wrote an article reflecting on race and consciousness in a post-apartheid South Africa – I agree with many of his sentiments but would obviously have played up the education side of things had I wrote it myself 🙂 I’m currently thinking of writing an article titled something along the lines of “Why we can’t just bury the hatchet”
  • If you feel like going down the rabbit-hole of South African education research Martin Gustafsson’s personal website is a really good place to start. His draft (read: practically final) PhD thesis is somewhere there. It should be published as a book and then shown to all first-year-PhD students once they’ve registered and passed the point of no return. Primarily for intimidation/motivation purposes. I am a huge fan of Martin’s pragmatic-yet-rigorous research and will personally hold a funeral service for the quality of SA education should he decide to leave education research anytime in the near future.
  • Quote of the week comes from the introduction to the NSES book (edited by Nick Taylor, Servaas van der Berg and Thabo Mabogoane – not released yet but see here):
  • “The systematic study of schooling has long been plagued by acrimonious debates around theoretical foundations and research methods. Our starting point is that the existence of these debates is indicative of the enormous complexity of the field, and that, far from representing the most appropriate approach, each of the contending perspectives provides a partial view and limited but valuable insights into the terrain of schooling. Thus, research studies that utilise multilevel modelling techniques attempt to unravel the many variables that direct and shape teaching and learning, and to understand their relative importance and interactional effects. Within this broad church, the traditions of school effectiveness research and the economics of education bring complementary perspectives to bear. While the former assumes that individual actors, and in particular school principals and teachers, are motivated by altruism and the desire to do the best for the learners in their care, economists assume that actors are motivated largely by self interest. Taken together, these views sound like a good description of human behaviour.”
  • For the next 10 days I need to find my productive-panic mode since I have a looming deadline and I am yet to find the rabbit in the hat, let alone pull it out…on the upside it does look like a promising paper looking at learning trajectories and accumulated learning deficits.

Meaning, inequality, sociology and English majors…


  • Such a sweet cartoon about the meaning of questions and questioning meaning 
  • Really useful World Bank tool developed by Deon Filmer. It allows you to easily get graphs and tables on educational attainment and completion for a variety of countries.
  • SACMEQ III (2007) country reports have finally been finalized and are now available for download on the SACMEQ website
  • Angus Deaton writing in the Lancet weighs in on the fight between Sen and Bhagwati by comparing their two new books. Short article and worth the read.
  • The Rise and Consequences of Inequality in the US” – Krueger’s 2012 address to the Council of Economic Advisers. Worth a read. In case you were wondering how unequal South Africa’s income is distributed, the richest 10% of South Africans earn 58% of total income, the poorest 50% earn 8% of total income, and the poorest 10% earn 0.5% of total income (from this 2012 World Bank report on inequality of opportunity in SA).
  • The latest edition of the British Journal of the Sociology of Education is on “Education and Social Mobility” – some interesting stuff in there. I’m glad the sociologists are seeing the light as far as empirical research is concerned. One quote from the intro by Brown, Reay & Vincent: “The mass of research on student identities, aspirations and experiences of school, college and university has been overlooked, partly because it is primarily based on qualitative rather than quantitative methods of data collection. While this points to a weakness in mainstream mobility studies it also points to a failure of the sociology of education to engage in broader debates around intergenerational mobility, notwithstanding its engagement with wider debates on social inequalities and social justice. It also raises questions as to whether the next generation of education researchers will have the training in quantitative methods and techniques to engage in future mobility studies” (p.638).
  • A. H. Halsey has similar sentiments when he says that “Conflicts between advocates of quantitative and qualitative methods still rage in sociology. I can claim to be among the pioneer supporters of quantitative methods but also to have been friendly towards qualitative work. Nevertheless, the neglect of statistical training still seems to me to be a barrier, not only to sociological understanding but also to the supply of competent teachers of the subject
  • Quote of the week by Adam Gopnik “So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.” From the New Yorker article “Why teach English?


We read, we lead…


Some great course outlines for those of you eager to find comprehensive reading lists on curriculum, education in developing countries and the economics of education:


The arc of history is bent towards justice…


  • A usually conservative US Supreme Court recently ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. Their rulings on Prop 8 also clears the way for gay marriage in California. On this note, it’s always nice to remember that while the arc of history is long, it is bent towards justice (MLKJ). What yesterday seemed ridiculous (women voting? Interracial marriage? Equal rights for black Africans) is today commonplace. The legalization of gay marriage across the States and across the world is now just a matter of when, not if. Wonderful to think that gay marriage has been legal in South Africa for almost 8 years – in 2006 the National Assembly passed the motion by a vote of 230 to 41.
  • For those of us ascribing to the Christian faith, I highly recommend this article by Prof Smedes titled: “Homosexuality and divorce, why not treat them the same?” and this letter from the Bishop of Salisbury. For those concerned with secular ethics see “Homosexuality is not immoral” by Peter Singer. I obviously have more to say on this issue so there will definitely be a post or two on this in the future…
  • On a related note, Exodus International – the largest ex-gay / pray away the gay – ministry issued an apology and shut down. Also see this The Beast article on this – I loved the quote “Mercifully, there comes a point when even the most committed of ideologues admit defeat.”
  • Really useful website “World Data on Education Seventh Edition 2010/11” – helpful country summaries for LOADS of countries…
  • Awesome website showcasing the interiors of wonderfully creative people: – thanks Laura Rossouw
  • The wonderful Stephen Fry on loneliness and his attempted suicide.
  • Quote of the week comes from An interview with Milton Friedman:
    • “I think the major issue is how broad the evidence is on which you rest your case. Some of the modern approaches involve mining and exploring a single body of evidence within itself. When you try to apply statistical tests of significance, you never know how many degrees of freedom you have because you’re taking the best out of many tries. I believe that you have a more secure basis if, instead of relying on extremely sophisticated analysis of a small fixed body of data, you rely on cruder analysis of a much broader and wider body of data, which will include widely different circumstances. The natural experiments that come up over a wide range provide a source of evidence that is stronger and more reliable than any single very limited body of data.”