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Quantitative Applications in Education Research Conference identifies reading as a critical learning foundation

ReSEP (28 September 2017 – 29 September 2017)

Evidence-based research is a vital complement to practical and innovative processes within the education policy space. Rigorous research informs decision-making and therefore plays a strategic role in planning and reporting, which in turn enhances the effectiveness and accountability within education policies and systems.

The third Quantitative Applications in Education Research conference was hosted by Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP), University of Stellenbosch, on 28 and 29 September 2017 at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). The conference was attended by participants from government, academia and civil society, with a keynote video address from the Minister of the Department of Basic Education (DBE), Ms Angie Motshekga.

The Minister reiterated the important links between the DBE and ReSEP, as well as the broader research community, and emphasised the need to extend such collaboration to other institutions, “We hope that this partnership continues in years to come, and is also extended to previously disadvantaged universities in order to increase the production of high quality, policy relevant research within the sector”.

International speakers included David Evans, who is a Lead Economist in the Chief Economist's Office for the Africa Region of the World Bank; and Yuri Belfali, who is the Head of Early Childhood and Schools division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). David Evans emphasised that teachers are one of the key ingredients in the learning progress, and the most effective interventions work through teachers. He further advocated that in order to get the most out of teachers, one required effective professional development; motivation and incentives; and teaching to the level of the students. Yuri Belfali presented on the recent efforts being made by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), such that it becomes more relevant for a wider range of countries. This includes adapting the leaner assessments to better measure performance in developing countries, improving the contextual questionnaires and introducing measures of leaner well-being.

As a core focus, the DBE has identified reading as a critical learning foundation that needs to be acquired in earlier grades for the sake of further learning. Stephen Taylor (DBE) presented on lessons after 2 years of implementation of the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) in a sample of 230 schools in the North West with Setswana as the home language. Amongst the three interventions targeting home language literacy i.e. teacher training, teacher coaching and parental involvement, the main finding was that the teacher coaching intervention had the largest impact, with learning gains of about 40% of a year of schooling. In addition, Linda Zuze (HSRC) found a positive association between parental perceptions of reading ability and a child’s reading performance.

The Minister, in her keynote address, also gave special recognition to the development of African languages in early grades. In this regard, Nompumelelo Mohohlwane (DBE) presented on Benchmarking African Languages - work done in collaboration with Nic Spaull (ReSEP) and Elizabeth Pretorius (Unisa). The sample included 61 outlier schools in quintiles 1 to 3 in three provinces and focused on isiZulu, Northern Sotho and Xitsonga. She emphasised that we need to move beyond a repetitive focus on low comprehension outcomes – this is simply the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Below the surface, there is widespread evidence that most children have not acquired the basic ‘tools’ for reading success i.e. the ability to accurately and fluently decode letters and words and move from an effortful activity into an automated skill. Research on different reading components or the cognitive-linguistic process involved in reading in African languages is also lacking. She also highlighted that we need to better understand this cognitive-linguistic data generating process for African languages.

Other presenters included representatives from Stellenbosch University (SU), the Human Science Research Council (HSRC), New Leaders Foundation (NLF), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), as well as PhD candidates from a range of higher education institutions in South Africa.

Additional noteworthy findings presented at the conference were around family influences on early grade reading and maths; interrogating quality choice and preferences in South Africa’s non-fee paying primary schools; and looking at the impact of school quality on academic performance. Firstly, Linda Zuze revealed that families influence children’s educational performance in two “intangible” ways. That is, through communicating the importance of education to a child and creating an environment where learning can flourish. Secondly, Gabrielle Wills (SU) advocated that while we may not find best practice schools when interrogating quality and choice preferences in South Africa’s non-fee paying primary schools, there is a middle ground, a rightward movement away from dysfunction that can be reached. We also cannot rule out the presence of relatively more “resilient” schools and students, who stand out after discounting for student and school background factors; and thirdly, Marisa von Fintel (SU) and Servaas van der Berg (SU) found that when children move from quintile1 to quintile 5 schools, they generally perform better.

The conference also touched on some Higher Education research, in particular, Nic Spaull presented on the female advantage in higher education in South Africa, work done in collaboration with Hendrik van Broekhuizen (SU). The most important findings of the analysis were the following:  Females were 20% more likely to access university and graduate with an undergraduate degree in six years than their male counterparts; there is strong evidence of gendered access effects rather than gendered completion effects; females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to drop out of a university programme than their male counterparts; in terms of socioeconomic status, most pro-female advantages are among the wealthiest groups; among the best performing sub-groups, the female advantage is almost entirely (77%) explained by superior school-level achievement; and while it is true that fewer females graduate with a degree in traditionally make fields of study, it is largely because they do not enter into these fields, not because they do not do well in them once enrolled.

The panel session focused on the practice of improvement: Getting from here to there. Participants included Jonathan Jansen (University of the Free State), Brahm Fleish (University of the Witwatersrand), Peliwe Lolwana (University of the Witwatersrand) and Dr Molale (North West University). The discussion focused on questions around: What did we do right in South Africa post-apartheid? What did we do wrong post-apartheid? What are some of the best candidates explaining the reason for improvement in outcomes between 2002 and 2015? What is their view of teacher unions in the education sector and the way forward, specifically in relation to how the DBE relates to labour relations? As a country, how do we get from where we are now in education to where we need to be in 2030? Building good schools, expanding access, rationalising the different departments and having good policies in place were mentioned as things done right post-apartheid. Amongst what was done wrong, panelists mentioned that there was not sufficient focus on instructional practice, teachers from university are equipped with content knowledge but not teacher pedagogy, and there should have been a focus on earlier grades before elaborate policies. Some of the reasons identified for improvements post-apartheid were that South Africa managed to stabilise a completely collapsed system, the knowledge of teachers has improved, and we had put pressure on schools for change. Panelists stated that there were slight improvements from the teachers union in drafting a new education labour relations policy, however, challenges remain in the implementation. In addition, concerns were raised surrounding teacher instructional practices, specifically teachers in rural schools. As a way forward, panelists advocated for the use of proven programmes, anticipating problems that may arise, and expanding capacity and accountability across the entire system.

Overall, there was a general consensus around the importance of researchers being able to access data and the need for proper information in our system. The close collaboration with the DBE and the strategic role the DBE plays in facilitating this process was emphasised. In addition, there needs to be a focus on building the capacity of individuals in order to analyse this data.

 

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