Opportunity-to-Learn Issues Common to South Africa and the United States

By Murray, Gloria | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Opportunity-to-Learn Issues Common to South Africa and the United States


Murray, Gloria, The Journal of Negro Education


Among the many educational dilemmas the United States and South Africa share in common, this article highlights two: disparities in school funding and school dropout. The twist, however, is that in South Africa, the majority population has borne the brunt of educational segregation, discrimination, economic exploitation, and deprivation based on racial/ethnic differences; while in the US., minority groups have suffered these inequities. Nonetheless, the author maintains that the similar challenges each nation faces to improve education can be addressed by identifying the important educational lessons both can learn from each other.

Comparisons of student achievement in the United States with that of students in other economically advanced nations raise legitimate concerns for educators and politicians. For example, as early as 1983, educational policymakers in the U.S. were jolted with the issuance of the A Nation at Risk report, which underscored the poor performance of U.S. schoolchildren compared to the performances of children from other economically advantaged nations (National Commission for Excellence in Education, 1983). However, such comparisons, before and since, must be evaluated in light of both the social histories and the recent demographic changes that have shaped and are rapidly reshaping the nature of the U.S. student population, their families, and society at large.

Among developed nations, South Africa and the U.S. share many characteristics in common. The election of African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa in 1994 exposed to the world apartheid's deliberate and systematic denial of education to the majority of the South African population. Forty years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) uncovered and legally ended the then-accepted practices of racial segregation and discrimination in that nation's schools. Presently, similar issues confront both countries, including the fragmentation of their educational systems, low student achievement, disproportionate levels of child poverty, and multiple and often conflicting demands on a strained economy. These challenges are associated with other social problems and demand immediate attention, yet they manifest differently due to the racial mix evident in the two nations' populations.

In South Africa, it is the majority that has suffered discrimination due to that country's apartheid system of rigidly enforced racial separation. In the U.S., the minority has suffered at the hands of "Jim Crow" systematic segregation and second-class citizenship. As a result, many of the decisions and concerns about education in both nations historically have been racially motivated. In both, these decisions and concerns have favored White students over disadvantaged Black students and other students of color.

Race and class have touched and polarized almost every aspect of the human experience in the U.S. and South Africa. Over time, the separate but unequal educational experiences wrought by both nations' discriminatory policies have created a significant gap between the races and people of various ethnic groups as well as between rich and poor. Several U.S. and South African studies have found that student achievement, and consequently employment readiness, are correlated, to some degree, with the serious disparities in the funds available to different school systems (Hanushek, 1994; Kozol, 1991; Nkabinde, 1997). The gap between educational "haves" and "have nots" has jeopardized the academic achievement and the future of all children in these two countries. In both, there is an urgent need to reconcile school funding policies that privilege one group of students to a better educational experience because they are members of a certain racial/ ethnic group or class or live in one area of a country. This is especially important when those advantages accrue at the expense of students who belong to other groups or classes or who live in other regions. …

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