Crisis in Maths and Science Education

Cape Times (South Africa), October 5, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Crisis in Maths and Science Education

BYLINE: Ann Bernstein

Peru has done well in getting children into school - more so than richer neighbours Argentina and Chile. The problem is that, as in South Africa, Peruvians do not learn much in the classroom.

In December, the Peruvian education ministry announced all teachers would have to take a proficiency exam. Peruvian unions, long opposed to teacher evaluation, got hold of the exam paper and posted it on their website. According to the minister of education, this serious mistake resulted in the public losing what "little confidence it still had in the union".

The ministry rewrote the exam paper and, in defiance of the union's boycott, four out of five of Peru's 250 000 teachers completed the assessment in January. Almost half of those who sat for the exam were unable to solve elementary maths questions, and a third failed a reading comprehension test.

South Africa needs to implement a similar test for its maths and science teachers. Special interests might object, but the national interest demands that we move decisively and speedily in this area.

We spend proportionately more on education than many other developing countries, yet our learners perform far worse in international tests. Our schools continue to produce far fewer passes in maths and science than the country's economy requires.

There is widespread agreement across society that radical improvement is necessary. We share common concerns with the Ministry of Education, including the desire for dramatically improved school results, the need to substantially improve performance, act against underperformance, and we strongly support the idea of Dinaledi schools.

In 2001, the government introduced its specialist maths and science schools - Dinaledi - and a few years later set itself the task of doubling the number of higher grade (HG) maths and science passes from 2004-2008. Despite new commitment and energy since 2005, we've seen insufficient progress.

Annual passes in HG maths have fallen increasingly short of the Department of Education's stated targets for achieving the doubling goal, and from 2005 to 2006 they actually declined - the department says it was a harder exam.

Major changes are being made to senior secondary education. From next year, mathematics and a more rudimentary subject, mathematical literacy, will be compulsory.

Currently, some 275 000 senior secondary learners, or 60%, study either HG or standard grade (SG) maths. Under the new system, this figure will jump to more than half a million, placing additional demands on maths teaching.

There is considerable anxiety across the school system about the new maths and science curricula. Teachers and officials alike are worried about heavily loaded curricula, the standards for the new exams in maths, maths literacy and science, and teacher supply.

Maths and science teaching in most of South Africa's schools is woefully inadequate. Some 80% of secondary schools achieve only one higher grade maths pass each, on average; and of these poorly-performing schools, more than half fail to achieve even a single higher-grade pass.

Reliable national data on teachers is scarce, but indications are that there is already a shortage of teachers, particularly in maths and science; some maths teachers are not adequately qualified (56%, says the minister of science and technology); they are unevenly distributed throughout the education system and often are not adequately utilised.

Teachers spend too little time teaching (about 40% of total work time instead of an expected 85%); and commonly fail to complete the curriculum of one grade before learners are promoted to the next.

Learners are often taught "cumbersome and time-consuming methods" for solving simple tasks. For example, at the end of the primary phase learners commonly try to divide 210 by three counting out 210 sticks, grouping them in threes and counting the groups without any knowledge of the relevant division algorithm.

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