Teacher monitoring and the failure of the public sector

Sean Muller says the real priority should be to build effective and stable institutions


Fixing the public sector is the critical step in resolving many of South Africa's critical challenges. In some sense this is a trite observation but it is surprising how the public discourse obsesses about small, symptomatic problems (textbooks, mud schools, broken lifts, crimes in hospitals, incidents of police brutality) and yet gives little attention to tackling the root causes.

In this context the recent statements from National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel that we need to fix the `engine room' that is the civil service are timely. And despite her very disappointing performance as Minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu has shown early signs of recognising the importance of her new post and a willingness to engage robustly with the many issues that require her attention.

However, the devil is in the detail of how we actually devise and develop a way to reform and improve the civil service. Recently proposed policies relating to teachers are a good and topical example.

‘Accountability': teachers as prisoners?

The basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, has proposed a biometric clock-in system to monitor teacher attendance at a cost of R480million. Following Motshekga's announcement, Sisulu flighted a proposal to regulate teacher dress codes. So at the same time as we should want to elevate the status of teaching as a profession in order to attract talented candidates, the message being sent out publicly is that we are planning to treat them in some respects like prisoners.

It should be said that in this South Africa is just following a pernicious international trend of demanding more of teachers than they do of most other public servants and many employees in other kinds of better-remunerated occupations. How well, we might ask, are attendance-monitoring systems currently working in national government departments for civil servants paid a great deal more than teachers? Not very well I suspect.

Similarly, as a university lecturer I am always intrigued by the demands on school teachers that are entirely absent for tertiary teachers: evidence of lesson planning, regular prescribed assessments of lessons by external assessor or even salaries based on students' test scores. Despite usually having no training in how to teach and getting salaries mostly from the public purse, academics are - by comparison - given a free ride.

While it has become popular in some countries - like the United States and South Africa - to demonise teachers as lazy, incompetent and unaccountable, there is little evidence that the proportion is any greater than other professions.

The result, however, is that the bureaucratic demands become ever greater and the ability of competent teachers to actually teach is impeded while talented individuals are completely deterred from entering the profession (at least at public schools). Why take a significantly lower salary than you could obtain in a public sector managerial position or private sector job when you will be tarred by association with those who act unprofessionally and subjected to incessant public hostility toward your occupation?

The above-mentioned proposals by Sisulu and Motshekga should be seen in this context. The problem with the current discourse on the education system is that it is characterised by a predilection for blame and superficial solutions.

A recent episode of The Big Debate on SABC 1 on the 10th of March was precisely of this tenor, deliberately encouraged by the show's host and aided-and-abetted by seemingly selective editing, despite an adequate number of knowledgeable and well-intentioned experts on the panel.

Perhaps this attitude is an inevitable response to the gargantuan task of turning-around a system that was designed to be mediocre and was not subject to adequate reform when the political opportunities presented themselves in the 1990s, but it is getting us nowhere.

Building competent institutions

So what are the solutions? I suggest that these are to be found within what should be the primary goal of Sisulu's department: the overarching objective of building competently staffed and stable institutions. One only needs to look at the procession of senior officials through various government departments and parastatals, along with the low calibre of too many civil servants to see that this simple goal is currently absent from government's agenda.

To identify priorities we need to start by envisioning what a functional institution - classroom, school, educational department in this case - would look like, contrasting this with the present reality and then mapping a path between the two. Obvious, but this process can yield very different conclusions to the more popular approach, which is to identify the most glaring or incongruous failures and throw all our resources at fixing these. The latter is likely to lead to a lot of waste and only short term benefits.

Consider again the teacher attendance example. Those studies that have been conducted show that average teacher absenteeism in South Africa is high by comparison to developed countries. Whether it is higher than our neighbouring countries is currently the subject of much debate but that controversy is really a distraction from the basic point that a significant proportion of schools experience very high absenteeism rates (more than 10%).

The biometric monitoring system would supposedly resolve the problem by implementing a fingerprint, as opposed to paper-based, register presumably coupled with some kind of penalties for detected excessive absenteeism. What is interesting about this approach is that it says nothing about why teachers are missing school or, in particular, why excessive absenteeism is not currently being logged and punished by principals. To my knowledge none of the studies on absenteeism have demonstrated convincingly whether poor school conditions cause low attendance or vice versa; one suspects both processes are involved.

One study that has been done suggests that absentee teachers are more likely to be under-qualified, as measured by their performance on assessments testing the material the teachers are supposed to be teaching. So weak schools tend to get less diligent teachers but they also have working conditions that make absenteeism more likely. What these subtleties draw our attention to is context, something statistics for a single variable do not convey.

Building the bridge between vision and harsh reality

Let us give a crude characterisation of a school with high absenteeism rates based loosely on what we know from cross-sectional household surveys. Our hypothetical school is probably in a very poor area, either rural or township, with over half of its teachers unable to pass the exam they are supposed to be preparing students for, the principal is under-qualified too or hamstrung by the numbers of weak or self-serving teachers, many children are undernourished and with educational deficits from earlier years, parents are typically unable to assist children with homework and are struggling to merely make ends meet, employment is the exception rather than the norm, a significant proportion of families will have only one parent and the burden of disease and substance abuse will be significant, the school has absurdly large class sizes (anything above 35 in these circumstances) and limited educational facilities such as computers or lab equipment, and poor on-site sanitation.

If it is a rural area then teachers may live far away from the school and need to take a long, bumpy ride on unsealed roads twice a day. In urban areas there may be very serious problems with gangsterism, crime and drugs. The school may not have electricity and if it does the photocopying equipment - critical for producing notes and assessments - is regularly out of order.

Quite frankly, I doubt any armchair pontificators we are regularly subjected to would survive even a few weeks in this school without mental or physical breakdowns, or neglecting some of their official professional duties (attendance, lesson planning, regular assessment, marking, extra-mural activities, mandatory training and the like).

Surely in this school it is obvious that dress codes and biometric systems count for nothing. They are practically absurd, will have little substantive effect relative to outcomes and, in the case of the biometric monitoring system, will be very costly. Why would a school that fails to implement and enforce paper-based attendance systems be any more able to implement an expensive biometric system?

What will stop teachers clocking-in and then leaving only to come back and clock-out later on? Furthermore, if we assume that it is the ‘worst' - least diligent and least qualified - teachers who engage in this behaviour then how much benefit will really accrue even if you do manage to force them into the classroom?

So much for that horrible reality. What would we want a public school to look like? First, it is important to be realistic. There are some private initiatives that skim-off the top students from township schools, provide them with publicly unaffordable facilities (iPads, for example) using donor financing and then claim that their impressive pass rate shows how private models are better than public schools.

While these efforts may benefit the small numbers of children involved, as models they are essentially useless because they are not scalable. It is best, then, to think about the kinds of schools that are feasible within the current education budget. The good news, at least, is that we could probably do a lot more with existing resources.

Our school should have a functioning feeding scheme for qualifying students. There should be adequate security on the premises for both students and teachers. It should have electricity and a set of functioning, basic administrative and teaching equipment. There should be adequate sanitation facilities in proportion to the number of learners and teachers. The school's physical structures must be sound, regularly maintained and provide adequate protection from the elements.

In as much as these are the kinds of things Equal Education are asking, or litigating, for the Department of Basic Education to provide then we should all support that. Of course, success requires the DBE to be in adequate shape to meet these demands along with its partner departments responsible for electricity, sanitation and school buildings. That is about civil service capacity and accountability, which I have written about before and will expand on in another piece. Suffice to say that as laudable as the effort is, the likes of Equal Education and Section 27 will achieve very little with litigation if departments' attitudes and competence is not addressed. Court victories can only do so much.

Nevertheless, addressing the above issues is a lot easier than the second set of challenges which will, in the end, determine whether children learn anything useful or not. Structures and materials do not make a school, students and teachers do. In that regard we need at least the following. Neither students nor teachers should need to commute for more than an hour each way. All teachers should be well-qualified in the subjects they teach, as measured by their own school marks and subsequent specialisation in teacher training. Principals should have extensive experience as teachers and in senior management roles and additional training for their specific responsibilities, along with the support required to enforce requisite standards of behaviour on teachers and students.

Why are these objectives so much more challenging than the preceding ones? Because - in principle at least - you can build a school or toilet block, extend electricity pylons, buy photocopiers or textbooks in less than six months. At a suitably attractive price these goods and services can be procured from the private sector.

Training a good teacher is a different story. It requires long-term planning in terms not only of how many are required but what their level of qualification needs to be and where such individuals will be found, precisely because the education system is not producing enough candidates as it stands. I suppose someone could start a new court case to force the DBE to legislate minimum norms and standards for teachers, but really then why not just run the education system from a courtroom? Given the chicken-and-egg nature of the teacher training problem some hard and creative thinking is required; there is little evidence of that to date.

Even taking into account the unbelievable challenges faced daily by many teachers a part of me also wants to demand - as many others have - that all under-qualified and under-performing teachers simply be dismissed. However, I am painfully aware that we do not exactly have a pool of qualified teachers waiting to replace them. Until we do, large-scale dismissals are, like dress codes and biometric clock-in systems, a superficial, poorly-conceived solution. If 30% of our current teachers - not an implausible statistic - should simply not be in the profession what do we do? Fire them and have 30% of classes untaught?

Redistribute the learners to already over-sized classes? Increase the already almost impossible burden of competent teachers? Evidently none of these are acceptable. And yet we continue to hear calls for government to fire incompetent or under-performing teachers whereas those energies would be better directed at first demanding new cadres of competent teachers. Those incompetent and unprofessional teachers who are in the system were trained and hired through government-run processes, why is no-one asking how that happened and continues to happen on a yearly basis?

Whatever actions we do take it is critically important not to make diligent teachers' lives harder than it already is. They should, for example, have lee-way to determine how they teach the curriculum in a way tailored to their students and context. Some commentators seem to think that we should hold a proverbial gun to teachers' heads:  specify every daily teaching task across all subjects and schools nationally and have regular inspections to make sure that teachers are teaching a given topic on the right day.

This is misguided if not downright foolish. Some students may be better off covering 80% of the curriculum at a slower pace than covering everything, others may be able to finish the whole syllabus early and do extensive revision and many others may need remedial work at the beginning of the year before they can tackle that grade's work.

By all means provide teachers with a structured guide, but the better teachers will inevitably want to deviate from this and should be allowed to do so. Occasional school inspections are important, as are occasional classroom observations, but more than that is excessive. What we should not do is deploy scarce resources to create an army of bean counters who will parachute into classrooms and check that every teacher in the country is on p.75 of workbook 3 on day 147 of the year.

Lessons from Bafana Bafana

Whenever I think about the public sector in South Africa I can't help thinking about Bafana Bafana. In the 1990s we had the opportunity to put in place administrative and development structures upon which we could build a world-class team. Instead we nose-dived through bureaucratic incompetence and selfishness, divas for players and a national psyche in which we believed ourselves to be suited to a Brazilian style of football.

Rather than get down to the basics of extensive preparation and teamwork, as South Korea did when they hosted the event, we opted for flair and were unceremoniously dumped from the World Cup we hosted. We are now in such dire straits that we celebrate just getting through the first round in the African Nations Cup. The recent much-heralded improvement in matric results is in the same category of achievement.

Our education bureaucracy remains incompetently managed and focused on fancy solutions to deeper, more basic problems. The biometric attendance system is like hiring the Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Pereira: doomed to be an expensive failure. It will do little to address any of the serious challenges in the education system and should be rejected with contempt; the R480million could be put to much better uses. Furthermore, if we do develop our educational institutions as we should, then such a system will become largely redundant.

What we need is to roll-up sleeves and tackle the basics, difficult and unglamorous as that may be. Much of that work will involve development of a systematic approach to creating a competent and professional civil service that seeks to develop, attract and retain the best candidates in every field.

In education this means recruiting talented individuals into the bureaucracy and making training of good teachers and principals a top priority. Once such processes are begun it will rapidly become clear which stakeholders are determined to allow their own vested interests to oppose progress - something currently obscured by cycles of blame and mud-slinging - and we can then tackle government ineptness, union obduracy or self-serving attempts at privatising education, head on.

Sean Muller is an economist at the University of Cape Town.

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