Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eager Students Fall Prey to Apartheid’s Legacy

Published: September 19, 2009

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa — Seniors here at Kwamfundo high school sang freedom songs and protested outside the staff room last year because their accounting teacher chronically failed to show up for class. With looming national examinations that would determine whether they were bound for a university or joblessness, they demanded a replacement.

“We kept waiting, and there was no action,” said Masixole Mabetshe, who failed the exams and who now, out of work, passes the days watching TV.

The principal of the school, Mongezeleli Bonani, said in an interview that there was little he could do beyond giving the teacher a warning. Finally the students’ frustration turned riotous. They threw bricks, punched two teachers and stabbed one in the head with scissors, witnesses said.

The traumatized school’s passing rate on the national exams known as the matric — already in virtual free fall — tumbled to just 44 percent.

Thousands of schools across South Africa are bursting with students who dream of being the accountants, engineers and doctors this country desperately needs, but the education system is often failing the very children depending on it most to escape poverty.

Post-apartheid South Africa is at grave risk of producing what one veteran commentator has called another lost generation, entrenching the racial and class divide rather than bridging it. Half the students never make it to 12th grade. Many who finish at rural and township schools are so ill educated that they qualify for little but menial labor or the ranks of the jobless, fueling the nation’s daunting rates of unemployment and crime.

“If you are in a township school, you don’t have much chance,” said Graeme Bloch, an education researcher at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. “That’s the hidden curriculum — that inequality continues, that white kids do reasonably and black kids don’t really stand a chance unless they can get into a formerly white school or the small number of black schools that work.”

South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma, bluntly stated that the “wonderful policies” of the government led by his party, the African National Congress, since the end of apartheid 15 years ago, “have not essentially led to the delivery of quality education for the poorest of the poor.”

Scoring at Bottom

Despite sharp increases in education spending since apartheid ended, South African children consistently score at or near rock bottom on international achievement tests, even measured against far poorer African countries. This bodes ill for South Africa’s ability to compete in a globalized economy, or to fill its yawning demand for skilled workers.

And the wrenching achievement gap between black and white students persists. Here in the Western Cape, only 2 out of 1,000 sixth graders in predominantly black schools passed a mathematics test at grade level in 2005, compared with almost 2 out of 3 children in schools once reserved for whites that are now integrated, but generally in more affluent neighborhoods.

“If you say 3 times 3, they will say 6,” said Patrine Makhele, a math teacher at Kwamfundo here in this overwhelmingly black township, echoing the complaint of colleagues who say children get to high school not knowing their multiplication tables.

South Africa’s schools are still struggling with the legacy of the apartheid era, when the government established a separate “Bantu” education system that deliberately sought to make blacks subservient laborers. Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister who was the architect of apartheid, said “Bantu” must not be subjected to an education that shows him “the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze.”

The struggle against apartheid dismantled the discredited structures of authority in education that Mr. Zuma’s government is now seeking to replace with a new approach to accountability. In those years, the African National Congress sought to make the nation — and its schools — ungovernable. Supervisors — part of an “inspectorate” that enforced a repressive order — were chased out of the schools, as were many principals.

Mary Metcalfe, who was the A.N.C.’s first post-apartheid education minister in the province that includes Johannesburg, recalled principals in Soweto being forcibly marched out of the township. After apartheid ended, Ms. Metcalfe, recently appointed director general in the country’s Higher Education Ministry, said there was a grab for “power and jobs and money.”

Most teachers in South Africa’s schools today got inferior educations under the Bantu system, and this has seriously impaired their ability to teach the next generation, analysts say. Teachers are not tested on subject knowledge, but one study of third-grade teachers’ literacy, for example, found that the majority of them scored less than 50 percent on a test for sixth graders.

But South Africa’s schools also have problems for which history cannot be blamed, including teacher absenteeism, researchers say. And then when teachers are in school, they spend too little time on instruction. A survey found that they taught for a little over three hours a day, rather than the five expected, with paperwork consuming too many hours. Mr. Zuma noted that this deficiency was worse in poor and working-class communities.

“We must ask ourselves to what extent teachers in many historically disadvantaged schools unwittingly perpetuate the wishes of Hendrik Verwoerd,” he recently told a gathering of principals, implicitly challenging the powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which is part of the governing alliance.

As South Africa has invested heavily in making the system fairer, the governing party made some serious mistakes, experts say. The new curriculum was overly sophisticated and complex. Teacher colleges were closed down, without adequate alternatives. The teachers’ union too often protected its members at the expense of pupils, critics say.

“We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

South Africa’s new education minister, Angie Motshekga, said in an interview that a lack of accountability had weakened the whole system.

“There’s a complete breakdown,” said Ms. Motshekga, a former high school history teacher.

Teacher vacancies commonly go unfilled for months, she said. Principals cannot select the teachers in their schools or discipline them for absenteeism.

Ms. Motshekga said she had Mr. Zuma’s strong backing to give principals greater authority, and would also seek to change the law so the education department could pick principals directly — and hold them accountable.

“The president said to me, ‘Minister, immediately look at the powers of principals,’ ” she said.

Here in the Western Cape, where the opposition Democratic Alliance recently came to power, the province is considering monitoring teachers’ attendance by having them send text messages or e-mail messages — in response to an electronic query — to confirm they are present.

“We’ve got to get discipline back in schools,” said Donald Grant, the provincial education minister.

Discipline for Teachers

Kwamfundo Secondary School illustrates just how critical an effective principal and disciplined teachers are to student achievement — and how quickly a school’s success can crumble if they are lacking.

For much of this decade, Kwamfundo was led by Luvuyo Ngubelanga, a commanding man admired by students and teachers alike for his strict insistence on punctuality, his work ethic and his faith in them. He prowled the corridors of the yellow brick school, poking his head in classrooms and collaring misbehaving students, making them pick up litter, sweep the halls or clean the bathrooms.

Mr. Ngubelanga, who now runs a vocational college, said most teachers are dedicated, but some could “be naughty like kids.” He recalled finding a classroom packed with students and tracking down its AWOL teacher loafing at the back of another class.

In his years as principal, 75 to 82 percent of students passed the matric, a set of examinations given to seniors that shape their life chances. But the school has struggled since he was succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Bonani. The matric passing rate plunged to 65 percent in 2007 and 44 percent last year.

Teachers and students describe Mr. Bonani as a far less forceful presence, though he says he is engaged and active. Teacher absenteeism has been a major problem.

“There’s a lot of teachers who take sick leave,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named, as it would jeopardize his ability to work with colleagues. “They are not punctual in the morning. How do we expect learners to behave if we do not behave?”

Hungry for Knowledge

Despite last year’s violent episode, students seem to feel genuine affection for their school and speak of their hunger for knowledge and their faith in education to bring a better life.

The classroom itself, No. 12A, seemed shaken awake one recent first period as 52 seniors lifted their voices in harmony. Tall, lanky young men at the back of the room pounded out a driving beat on their backpacks in a morning ritual of song and rhythm.

Even when they realized the science teacher was absent, the student body president and his sidekick, a radiantly optimistic AIDS orphan, rose to lead a review session on evolution. And when the second-period English teacher was late, they just kept on talking about Darwin’s finches and genetic mutations.

“Quiet!” exclaimed Olwethu Thwalintini, 18, the student leader. “Can I have your attention, please. Exercise 2.1.”

Murmuring voices and shuffling papers fell silent.

“List two environmental factors which make it possible for the vertebrates to move onto land,” said Blondie Mangco, 17, the sidekick, whose mother died during final exams last year.

Blondie has barely passing grades in physical science, but she believes she will somehow raise them to A’s or B’s, win entrance to the university of her dreams and become an environmentalist, a doctor or a biomedical scientist. Now that her parents and big sister are dead of AIDS, she feels a duty to be a role model to her little brother.

“He’s looking up to me now,” she said.

Later that day, Arthur Mgqweto, a math teacher, strode into the classroom, jauntily wearing a township take on the fedora called a square. He teaches more than 200 students each day for a salary of $15,000 a year. His students describe him as a friend, a mother, a father, a guide.

“He comes early every, every, every day,” Blondie said. “He comes here early at 7 o’clock and he’s the last one to leave. He’s given himself to us.”

Mr. Mgqweto grew up in the countryside during the apartheid years, ashamed to go to school because he had no shoes. He finished high school in his 30s, sitting in class with children half his age. His only son was stabbed to death at age 21 in a nearby township.

“I always explain to them, life is very hard,” he said. “They must get educated so they can take care of their families when they grow old.”

His students bake chocolate cakes with him on their birthdays. Dozens come an hour early on weekdays and for Saturday morning sessions with him. He is paid nothing for those extra hours, except in their gratitude.

“I love that teacher,” said Olwethu, the student leader. “I love him.”

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