Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

This post was written by Thomas Hatch and originally published on https://thomashatch.org/

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on my visit to South Africa in February.  This first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; the second will describe the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

When I left for South Africa at the beginning of February, I was interested in seeing to what extent the educational improvement efforts I found there might be similar or different from those I’ve studied in other countries.  Conceivably, the significant challenges of the education system (described recently as “the worst in the world” in the Economist) might give rise to different strategies and initiatives both inside and outside of school than those I’ve encountered in more developed systems like Finland, Singapore and the US.  To explore this possibility, I visited government schools as well as private schools and talked with the leaders of a number of organizations including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust, all known for creating programs to support students from some of the most disadvantaged townships near Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In these conversations, I heard about concerns with some of the same issues I’ve seen in more developed systems, particularly the need for better preparation and professional development for teachers and leaders. I also heard concerns about the number of improvement efforts (almost 8000 according to a recent report) and the ways in which those programs might conflict with each other, (something I wrote about in the US almost twenty years ago in When improvement programs collide). But over the course of my visit, the extent of disadvantage that many poor students and many black students face in South African schools became more and more apparent.  Further, I heard again and again about the widespread need for books, textbooks curricula, and other basic materials and about the need to rely on volunteers, parents, community members and students themselves because well-trained teachers were not available.  But along with these significant demands, I was struck as well by the tremendous opportunities for growth and the positive outcomes that many of these programs are already achieving.

Overwhelming need coupled with real possibilities for growth

During my visit, it was impossible not to be inspired by the many stories of students from poor townships and rural areas who manage to succeed despite an almost complete lack of access to the materials, people, and opportunities they need to succeed.  As researchers like Brahm Fleisch have reported these students can spend years in school, exposed to only a smattering of content in no sensible sequence.  As a consequence, while most children do attend primary schools in South Africa, 27% of students who have attended school for six years cannot read; while the percentage of students who can’t do basic math has decreased substantially in recent years, 34% of 9th grad students still can’t do basic computations and have not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs.

Despite the accomplishments of those who have managed to succeed despite this system, a host of minor issues can throw even the most resilient students off track. As Dean Villet at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation described it, “People assume that, wow, these children have come through the worst school system in the world, or close to it, and they’ve somehow managed to get into university and therefore, they must be super resilient and super tough, but that’s not the case. Our learning is that the smallest thing that goes wrong really knocks these kids down. They’re very fragile. As much as yes, they have come through this system you can’t underestimate the trauma and the toll that it’s taken.”

The flipside, or as Villet says “the corollary” is that it doesn’t take a lot to eliminate some of those stumbling blocks and get and help many of those students stay on a successful path. Villet offers the example of the Dell Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, which provides scholarships to help 500 students to succeed in college. In the early years, program staff found that some of their students weren’t going to class.  When asked why, Villet reported, “the typical answers were ‘I’m too hungry or I’m too embarrassed’ because of personal hygiene issues, and they didn’t have the money to solve either of those two problems.” In response, the Foundation developed a “swipe card” that provides a relatively small amount of funding (about $200 a year) and enables students to buy items for food and hygiene.  Along with other changes including requiring universities to find on-campus housing for the scholars (and thereby eliminating long commutes and other transportation problems), success rates for the students rocketed from about 30% to over 90%.

“You just need a few things that give the students a sense of security and a sense of belonging in this really challenging and different environment from what they’re used to,” Villet related, “and success rates jump.”

Shelley O’Carroll made a similar point, but about the much younger students she works with through Wordworks. O’Carroll founded Wordworks in a few schools in Cape Town over ten years ago.  Since then, she and her colleagues have developed several different programs that help teachers, parents, caregivers, home visitors and volunteers to support the early language and literacy development of children during early childhood and primary school.  O’Carroll explained that these programs work with students who are often way behind their advantaged peers. When Wordworks began, O’Carroll found that a few of the first graders she worked with “knew a few letters and the rest knew hardly any.” It was also clear that their language was significantly less well developed than would be expected for their age. At the same time, while the challenges from lack of exposure were profound, it was, as O’Carroll put it “pure disadvantage” and “a complete lack of exposure to anything like books or letters and limited language learning opportunities” rather than learning difficulties or second language issues.  In turn, by targeting their programs to compensate for that disadvantage, O’Carroll points to their research and argues, “with a weekly lesson for an hour you can make good gains.”

When Joy Olivier described the origins of IkamvaYouth, she also emphasized the extent of the problems that she and her co-founder, Makhosi Gogwana, uncovered. Olivier explained that she and Gogwana were working together on a research project in 2002-2003 to try to identify where the next generation of scientists in South Africa might come from. That project led them to review the results that Black students had achieved on the science and math portions of South Africa’s twelfth grade matriculation exams.  As Olivier explained, “back then in 2002-2003, the education crisis and the massive inequalities between races just wasn’t as widely known.  For some weird reason, education just didn’t feature, it was all rainbow nation, rah, rah, without the nuts and bolts of what was perpetuating the inequalities.” So when Olivier and Gogwana looked at the results, they were so shocked by what they found that they thought there was something wrong with the data: “the number of Black students in the entire Western Cape Province with scores eligible to go into studying maths or engineering or anything that requires a decent math result,” Olivier lamented, “the number that came out of a whole province, was what should have come out of about five schools.” When Olivier and Gogwana compared their own school experiences, the results were even more striking. “Makhosi and I had gone to extremely opposite types of schools,” Olivier said. “I went to a school where everybody went on to university, and Makhosi didn’t know anyone else in his school who went university. And after he got into university he experienced this weird situation where he got a scholarship to study, but no one had told him what a Bachelor’s of Arts was, and he was trying to navigate the use of the scholarship and to access tertiary education but without any help and totally in the dark. And because he was tenacious and didn’t let it go, he managed to get into what he thought was a Fine Arts Degree program even though his specialty was geography and environmental sciences.” Together Olivier and Gogwana concluded that the missing ingredients for the students at his school were “information, support and the expectation that they will go on to study further.” With that as their inspiration, Gogwana called up the principal of his old school and told the principal that they wanted to come to tutor kids on Saturdays; he and Olivier gathered a bunch of friends, started going to the school every week, and worked with whoever showed up.

While Olivier doesn’t discount the amount of work they put into IkamvaYouth and developing the program, she was also amazed at the results they got even though as she put it, in the early days it was “just Saturdays, just one site, everybody volunteering, with absolutely zero money.” The initial afterschool model they developed focused primarily on helping students with their school work and consisted largely of students working together on homework in small groups of five with a tutor.  However, they quickly established a mentoring program that matched tutors with 12 grade students who were getting ready to take the matriculation exam at the end of 12 grade.  “Our first cohort (who matriculated in 2005) got some amazing results,” Olivier marveled. “100% matriculation pass rate (for 60 students who took the exams), 60% got into university, which we weren’t really expecting. It was radical. We got some kids into top programs at top institutions.”  All at a school that only a few years before had only one student out of the entire student body who went on to University.

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