The beginning of the new school year in South Africa leads J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the country’s educational challenges in tandem with America’s – while reflecting on the writer’s family’s experiences with Japanese education for clues of how to fix things.
It is that time of year when millions of South African students return to school – or take their first steps on their educational journey. The media has been filled – as always – with pictures of doe-eyed children entering their first school classroom as well as stories about the nostalgia of parents who remember their own first days of school. While the matriculation passing rate has risen, there are now also voices criticising the country’s fixation on using that exam-pass rate as the gold standard for measuring educational success.
At least from South Africa’s self-congratulatory officialdom, less pleasant realities have gotten short shrift. The disappearance of some 700,000 or so students from each class cohort, each year, by the time the matriculation exam would have rolled around for them; the absurdly low successful passage thresholds now set for these matric exams; the poor success in analytical competence in English; and the continuing failure to graduate most students from high schools with sufficient math and science skill to cope with university-level study (or to enter directly into technologically oriented work, straight from high school) still are being more or less minimised as urgent priorities in most official statements. To follow government statements, such shortcomings eventually would be addressed somehow, some way, at some unidentified time in the future. But not today.
In fact, without some sharp comments and dogged analysis from outside experts, crucial questions like these are being elided around almost entirely in government discussions, to the detriment of educational reform. And these approaches come as it becomes increasingly clear South Africa’s educational capabilities – as measured by a range of multinational, comparative skills assessments done at various grade levels – have been weighing in well behind virtually every nation South Africa is in competition with economically around the world. And the country is similarly behind the achievement levels of most other African nations – and just barely ahead of Yemen – a nation in the midst of a civil war.
Of course South Africa is not the only country with education issues. Just this past weekend, New York Times writer Tom Friedman’s latest column bemoaned a depressing decline in American educational standards as well. Friedman, citing a recent speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urged President Obama to push for a new educational revolution in favour of competence and quality as the centrepiece of his upcoming “State of the Union” speech to be delivered on 28 January before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives.
In discussing Duncan’s comments, Friedman wrote, “In fact, it was a feel-bad speech, asking one big question. Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel? Is this the key cause of income inequality and persistent poverty? No. But it is surely part of their solutions, and it is a subject that Obama has not used his bully pulpit to address in any sustained way. Nothing could spark a national discussion of this more than a State of the Union address. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, tells parents to speak up and get involved, in the right way, if they want their kids to get a better education.”
As Duncan himself had said, “In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.”
Duncan then added, “I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child? If your answer is no … then your work is cut out for you. Because right now, South Korea — and quite a few other countries — are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country. Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice — and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up. Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders — and to ask more of their kids.”
And so that brings us to a third version of education issues. As many Daily Maverick readers may know, this writer and his family lived for a decade in Japan. For many of those years, our children attended school there, including several years in an ordinary neighbourhood pre-school – a kindergarten, a yochien – and then on to the nearest government primary school, once they were old enough.
At their yochien, a team of energetic young teachers, under the guidance of a very experienced master teacher, taught our children. And the emphasis here is on the word “taught.” This place was definitely not a parking lot for children too young for first grade in primary school. The teachers frequently stayed at their desks well into the evening, preparing lessons – for pre-schoolers – and developing newsletters about what the children were doing at their pre-school, as well as detailed, instructional pamphlets for parents.
The lessons were often about building teamwork and developing attitudes to improve their problem solving skills. Meanwhile, the newsletters were packed with advice about the proper mix of foods parents should pack in a child’s lunch box every day, and even how it should be arrayed to make sure it was appetising. There was still more advice about how to help children make the most of their pre-school experiences and how parents should contribute to the goals of the teachers. Even the games in a preschool’s sports day had lessons built into them. As outsiders to Japanese culture, we found ourselves running to keep up with all the expectations the teachers had for our children – and of us as well.
Once our older daughter entered the first grade of primary school, our daughter’s teacher made a home inspection in the second week of school. Yes, that’s right, the teacher came to the home of every pupil in his class to make sure the home was ready to support a student in primary school. Did the child have a quiet, well-lit place to study, equipped with a student-sized desk? Did the parents understand the schedule for homework and know how to help their child at it? Did the child have an appropriate place to sleep and was the house set up so that he or she would be able to sleep enough hours each night to be ready for school?
The teachers in the first two or three grades were in the most prestigious positions in the school system – in part because the Japanese had figured out that it was in those years when children are best guided to become effective students. These early grade teachers were paid a bonus for this duty and the best teachers were picked to go into those teaching slots.
Teachers had serious work ahead of them as well. Mathematics education began early and moved fast. Even if students ultimately weren’t university material, it always seemed like everybody in the country was totally literate and numerate – something distinctly different from the experiences of foreign visitors to Japan just a hundred and fifty years earlier. And the educational system generated students who could easily step into technological jobs and apprenticeship programs across the economy.
Moreover, the writing system was fiendishly complicated – even for the Japanese. There were two syllabic alphabets, with one reserved for words of foreign origin before they had been thoroughly assimilated into Japanese. Then there was a third writing system that used around 2,000 or so ideographic and pictographic characters – mostly originally borrowed from the Chinese language a millennium or more earlier. All of these had to be learned successfully by graduation from high school. And for most students they were.
Of course by the time a student entered high school it was clear that the competition for entry into university would be really cut throat – although once in a university, students could bask in that achievement and relax. In order to get the best possible university entrance exam grades, many, perhaps most, students attended an afternoon cram school – the juku – in addition to regular school as well.
Although the Japanese economy has been under major stress following the collapse of its financial and property bubble in the late 1990s and has been struggling to get back its mojo as a growth dynamo, this rigorous educational machine and the skills it generated had been one of the key drivers of the country’s economic success. In large part, this Japanese system – built once the country’s isolation had been broken after 1867 – has been copied by the new successful economies of East Asia – Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea – to underpin their own economic success. And then, once China replaced its tight control of education by the communist party after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, it, too, has increasingly followed a kind of variation of the Japanese model – but drawing on traditional Chinese ideas and Western ones as well.
Of course the East Asian model is not without its own problematic aspects – and many Asian students seek university education elsewhere. Even if the American model has weakened its capabilities at the high school level for many, its universities continue to attract more foreign students than any other nation. Excellence still lives at the tertiary level.
According to the Institute of International Education, nearly 820,000 foreign students were studying in American universities in the most recently completed academic year – and this number was a record for international students, thoroughly reversing a decline that had set in after the events of 9/11. And of that total, just shy of 50% of all international students in America now come from just three Asian nations: China, India and South Korea – with China accounting for an amazing 235,000 students by itself.
And so, what of South Africa? For one thing, the country could look closely to emulating the rigour of Asian educational models at the primary and secondary levels with their emphasis on achievement and success – as a way to achieve an educational turnaround so as to help ignite both economic growth and increases in employment.
At a minimum, what might this include? Just for starters, this could include: raising the minimum passing grades for the annual matriculation exams each year until a realistic level is reached; insistence on a thorough grounding in math and science for as many students as possible; the requirement for a full competence in English; an insistence on achieving the maximum retention of students through the entire sequence of grades; a full-on effort to ensure that every student has a fully competent teacher in each grade and for all special subjects; and, of course, an insistence that all schools have water, electricity, IT connectivity, a fully functioning laboratory, a well-stocked library, and a full supply of textbooks. The country spends more, per capita, on education than any other country on the continent, and more as a percentage of its GDP than Canada or the Netherlands. It deserves a much better return on its investment than it is receiving now.
Then it could, as a necessary add-on, begin a major expansion of its tertiary education sector. This would include encouraging the establishment of high-quality private colleges and universities, and rigorously managed, technologically oriented training institutions as pathways for learning workplace skills. Along the way, it could insist private industry take the lead in helping build such training opportunities.
Is such a program achievable? Of course it is – with sufficient commitment and focus. Numerous East Asian nations have shown the way to do just this kind of commitment. Crucially, South Africa will need to adopt something like this – soon – if it wants to avoid being overtaken by war-torn Yemen in the measure of its national educational attainments. DM
Photo: Learners wait for the arrival of Gauteng MEC for education Barbara Creecy at Realeboga Primary School in Palm Ridge on Gauteng’s east rand on the first day of the academic year for learners in the province, Wednesday, 15 January 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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