Bureaucracy vs. Education?

In South Africa, the entire Education system is regulated at the highest levels of the Department of Education. Some may view this as a “what-if” story of what could happen in America as testing becomes a bigger part of education. Others may view it as a system that exists here because teachers need to be “motivated”, whatever that means. I only intend it as a basic description of one aspect of education in South Africa.

As a teacher, I have no control over my grades. Each student’s grade is a combination of their final exam grade and their “continuous assessment”. In Maths Literacy (my subject), continuous assessment is 3 tests and 4 assignments (take home tests). Homework, classwork, and participation cannot be part of the grade. Don’t even think about extra credit.

I do not choose what goes on my tests or assignments. They are either written by the Department of Education, or by my “cluster”–all of the teachers teaching my subject in my area (I think my cluster is about 10 schools). Theoretically, a cluster writes the tests and assignments together. In reality, the teachers in the cluster take turns creating the test/assignments. Theoretically, you get the assignments and tests with plenty of time to teach the material before they are due. In reality, you might get the test/assignment right before (or even after) the date it is set for. Theoretically, the grading is consistent across the entire cluster/province/whatever. In reality, the answer keys (known here as “memorandums”) are rarely clear about things like partial credit and are often riddled with mistakes.

After you grade the test the person in charge of your cluster, called a Curriculum Implementer (a CI), does something called “moderation”. Moderation is when teachers have their grading and paperwork checked to make sure they are following all the rules. Theoretically, the job of CIs is to help teachers. In reality, the CIs have an incredible paperwork burden and most of their time is spent on bureaucracy like moderation. If you deviate from the specific assignments, dates of tests/assignments, or the schedule of topics, you get into trouble when you are moderated.

This produces some challenges.

We’re nearing the end of our first term. Our first Maths Literacy assignment had at least 3 questions with blatant mistakes, and about half a dozen mistakes in the answer key. And most of the key was not clear about what was worth partial credit. What are we supposed to do about those mistakes? We gave an assignment where 100% is not possible.

We just received our test for the end of the term, and it is a mess. It is missing pages, and about a 3rd of it is material that we are not supposed to cover until term 2. Most of the test is an old midterm written by the Department of Education that was just repackaged.

So what do I do? Do I break the rules about teaching certain topics too early and teach to the test? Do I break the rules and change the test? Or do I just do nothing, knowing my students will probably fail?

And since we got the test less than a week before we’re supposed to give it, is this really fair to every teacher in the circuit except the one who wrote (photocopied?) the test (who has possibly known the content for much longer)? Is it really surprising that so many students fail? Is it really surprising that so many students think school is really difficult when they are given tests with material they aren’t supposed to know yet?

The Department of Education says that instruction should be “learner centered”. I can’t think of anything further from “learner centered” than this.

However, I want to point out that this is not the fault of any individual. This is the result of a large and fragmented bureaucracy where the individual components are isolated and have no wiggle room. Almost everyone I have met involved in Education here means very well, and is much better informed about the system and its shortcomings than this systematic dysfunction suggests.

So why is this the way it is? First, the bureaucracy must exist because there is a need for checks to fight corruption (pass rates are EVERYTHING here, and there is a lot of temptation to fudge things). Second, the kind of information a bureaucracy can most easily monitor is quantitative. So while having your grading and assessment micromanaged from on-high is an excellent way to fight corruption at the school level, it forces education workers to divert their time and attention from actual education and towards things that can be quantified. Thus, The incentives within the system are broken. Teachers get heat if they don’t pass moderation (which is easy to measure), but they don’t get accolades for devising an ingenious method of teaching of teaching basic probability (hard to measure). And CIs get heat if all their moderation isn’t finished on schedule (easy to measure), but they don’t get accolades if the tests they oversee are free of errors (since test errors aren't being measured). If you were in one of these positions, where would you be spending your time? What kind of work would you prioritize? What are you being incentivized to do?

I am not shining light on unknown dysfunctions, but to change bureaucracy takes time. Bureaucracy is especially slow to respond to problems within itself. This, above all else, is a fundamental problem with almost every organized government worldwide. If you can find an easy way around this problem, people will remember your name for time eternal.

1 Comment

Jesse says:

The fact of the matter is, The education system here is broken beyond repair and really is not teaching young South Africans how to cope with life after school. I have kids that are part of our drop in centre who are 16 years old and yet cannot speak or understand more then 4 words of English.

03 Apr 11 @ 9pm