Matric maths teachers are battling to master the same content their pupils have to deal with, research into a sample of 253 KwaZulu-Natal teachers has found.
Teachers in the sample got an average mark of just 57 percent when given a matric maths past paper to write.
The purpose of the study was to investigate teachers’ knowledge of the maths they were teaching.
Published in the Perspectives in Education Journal in March, the research was authored by Thokozani Mkhwanazi and Sarah Bansilal, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Deonarain Brijlall, of the Durban University of Technology.
The matric maths pass rate for KZN was 53.6 percent last year and the province has roughly 91 000 teachers.
As the study authors point out, most research into what maths teachers know has focused on primary school teaching.
These earlier studies pointed to teachers’ poor content knowledge as one of the reasons for pupils’ poor academic results.
Research in KZN primary schools in 2010 revealed that none of the teachers were able to achieve 100 percent for a test on the curriculum they were teaching, and 24 percent scored less than 50 percent.
And, in his analysis of data from the 2010 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, Stellenbosch University researcher Nic Spaull found the top 5 percent of Grade 6 pupils in South Africa achieved higher scores in the same maths test than the bottom 20 percent of Grade 6 maths teachers.
Mkhwanazi, Bansilal and Brijlall said there were no studies giving specific detail of the areas where matric teachers were struggling.
As well as the “disappointing” average of 57 percent which the matric maths teachers obtained, the study also showed that half of those sampled got a mark below 61 percent and that a quarter of the sample got a mark below 39 percent.
The difficulty of questions in a matric maths exam paper is broken down into four levels, where level four (problem solving) is the most challenging.
The researchers found that as the cognitive level of the questions increased, the teachers did progressively worse.
The teachers who participated in the study managed an average of only 26 percent on the level four questions – which made the researchers question how these teachers would be able to help their pupils.
“The results of this study raise concerns about the teaching of mathematics by Further Education and Training (Grades 10 to 12) teachers whose knowledge of school mathematics is so poor,” said Mkhwanazi, Bansilal and Brijlall.
“How will teachers design fair assessments for pupils that cover the four taxonomy levels if they are struggling to solve questions on levels three and four of the taxonomy?
“How will they recognise valid alternative solutions to higher-level questions if they cannot produce an appropriate solution themselves?” the academics asked.
In her budget speech last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the professional development of teachers was high on her priority list.
Her department had developed maths and English educational resources for primary and high school teachers, and these self-diagnostic assessments would be introduced next year.
Motshekga’s department was also phasing in a continuing professional teacher development management system in collaboration with the South African Council for Educators, which approved credible service providers, endorsed quality professional development activities and kept a record of programmes where teachers were enrolled.
On Sunday, Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said teacher content knowledge was a challenge being targeted “head on”, and that the major teachers’ unions were launching their own professional development institutes.
“There is recognition across the system that the knowledge of teachers must be deepened,” he said.
The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to continuous professional development.
Spokeswoman Nomusa Cembi said the union acknowledged that poor subject knowledge was a problem and was a result of the different levels of training teachers received.
She said professional development was not limited to maths or matric, but spanned all subjects and grades.
Anthony Pierce, the KZN head of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said he was not surprised that the teachers in the study had scored a 57 percent average.
He said that a few years ago teachers asked to answer a matric exam paper had “failed dismally”.
“That is why educators are not keen to have subject advisers or inspectors enter their classrooms. We must accept that those people are there to help us, not crucify us,” said Pierce.