Brahm Fleisch on building a new infrastructure for learning in Gauteng, South Africa

Twenty Years of Transformation in Education,” published in May by the Gauteng Department of Education in South Africa, illustrates the challenges and possibilities in pursuing systemic instructional reform. In a recent conversation, Brahm Fleisch, outlined central aspects of the strategy in Gauteng, highlighting the important role of the development of what David Cohen and others have called an “infrastructure” for instruction.

As Fleisch has described it, before the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, the routines and rhythms of schooling in most urban working class communities in Gauteng had been ruptured. As one recent media report explained, there may have been over 4 million “learner days” in Gauteng lost each year due to protests and other serious disruptions (out of over 11 million lost in South Africa as a whole). Since 1994, however, the government of Gauteng sought to restructure racially segregated administrative systems, address resource inequalities, institutionalize democratic school governance and transform the official curriculum. Although disruptions to education began to subside, substantial improvements in teaching and learning still had to be made. In fact, in 2006, South African 4th and 5th graders scored 45th out of 45 countries on the PIRLS test of reading skills (with 87% of 4th grade students and 78% of 5th grade students in South Africa unable to achieve the lowest standard of performance).

From Fleisch’s perspective, a key weakness of the initial reforms was a failure to reach the “instructional core” and an inability to transform and strengthen the instruction students experienced in classrooms throughout the province. As Fleisch explained, students experienced two different kinds of instruction depending on where they lived. Students in primary classrooms serving working class, poor and rural communities experienced choral recitation, copying from the blackboard into workbooks, incomplete coverage of the curriculum, and low expectations. In contrast, students in primary classrooms serving middle-class communities (both white and black) experienced higher expectations, more advanced reading materials, guided reading and writing, and tasks more aligned to those measured in standardized tests.

In order to create a more consistent and effective approach to instruction for all, the province developed and began implementing the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS) in 2010. Drawing on some aspects of England’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies (NLNS) (which a team from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education evaluated initially in Watching and Learning), the GPLMS provided what Fleisch termed a “triple cocktail” of scripted lesson plans, aligned texts and instructional materials, and coaching for teachers. As in England, the prescriptive nature of some of the reforms in South Africa were particularly controversial. However, building on the work of Barber and colleagues at McKinsey & Co., the strategy designers argued that a highly structured, aligned curriculum needed to be put in place to establish a foundation for more ambitious instructional improvement in the future.

Beyond the high level of prescription and structure, the GPLMS strategy was particularly noticeable for its attention to increasing the quality and consistency of instructional materials available to all students. As Fleisch pointed out, before GPLMS, teachers had to rely on a hodge podge of materials that varied widely in quality. As he put it, there was no coherent theory of instruction to support teachers in selecting and using the materials in productive ways. Further, few of those materials were produced in African languages (particularly the languages of the poorest students) because under apartheid, educational publishers had no market for such materials.   Thus, from Fleisch’s point of view, the development of a coherent sequence of materials aligned to common goals was a particularly crucial step in strengthening the instructional core.

Based on his own case studies and reports from colleagues and the teachers he has met in the field, Fleisch has found that many teachers welcomed the clarity and consistency the materials brought to their work. Reminiscent of the discussion of teacher autonomy in a previous post about South Korea, Fleisch argues that by providing teachers with support, the structured, aligned materials can help teachers to feel more effective and to develop a sense of professionalism. In fact, he’s even found that the teachers in Gauteng have copied and shared the materials with teachers in other provinces.

Fleisch stressed, however, that aligned materials alone are far from sufficient. In turn, he credited the individualized coaching with helping many teachers to develop their knowledge and skills. Fleisch also noted that the coaching had the added benefit of providing many teachers with social and emotional support to help them deal with the massive changes that were undertaken. In particular, the use of the materials and the work with the coaches helped to connect teachers, especially those isolated in poorer and more rural communities, with others who were all engaged in a systemic, coordinated improvement effort. Notably, the “triple cocktail” in Gauteng placed relatively little emphasis on the development of principals or other educational leaders, choosing instead to focus more directly on the content and means of instruction.

To date, the results of the GPLMS strategy are unclear. Twenty Years of Transformation in Education provides an account of some of the advances and challenges experienced in Gauteng overall and in the GPLMS approach in particular. While primary school students in Gauteng have shown steady improvements on South Africa’s national tests, Fleisch also points out that the tests have changed each year, making comparisons difficult. Further, critics continue to point high levels of dysfunction in South African schools overall.

In order to assess the impact of the “triple cocktail,” Fleisch is currently engaged in a set of studies including randomized controlled trials to examine the effects of several different aspects of the strategy. Further, Fleisch cautions that even with a highly-structured intervention like GPLMS, adaptations may need to be made in order for the strategy to succeed in different contexts. In one instance, a nearby province sought to develop a GPLMS-like instructional strategy. In that instance, however, several aspects of the context made implementation more difficult. In particular, students spoke a different variety of languages and the initial materials were pitched at too high a level. The mismatch between students’ readiness for learning and the level of the materials and instruction made it difficult to establish a strong foundation for improvement. As a consequence, Fleisch argues that even prescriptive and structured materials and approaches have to be adapted and updated constantly to ensure that they turn what Nic Spaull has called South Africa’s “zone of improbable progress” into a spiral of concrete and appropriate supports – a “zone of proximal development” – that facilitates steady improvement.

Thomas Hatch

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