Prof Jansen chooses smoke and mirrors over facts and figures


Prof Jansen chooses smoke and mirrors over facts and figures

He is out of sync with reality, peddling half-truths about the matric pass rate, says the basic education department

Mathanzima Mweli

The following is the department of basic education’s response to an opinion piece by Jonathan Jansen that was published in Times Select last week:
Professor Jonathan Jansen and his ilk have made it their habit that when the National Senior Certificate results are released and the nation celebrates their improvement evident in the basic education system, they elect to moan and complain, and in doing so feed the nation with unsubstantiated misrepresentations.
This year they have graduated from being professional moaners to a gaggle of dinosaurs who are completely out of sync with reality, especially the improvements being recorded in the basic education sector, which are confirmed by almost all national, regional, and international assessment studies. I have decided it is an absolute imperative to address many of Jonathan Jansen’s by now very familiar and tiring half-truths.
Every year, Jansen and a few others lead a squabble over what the “true pass rate” is, meaning National Senior Certificates obtained over an age cohort of the youth population. The fact checkers at AfricaCheck conclude that in recent years over 50% of youth obtained the NSC. This is credible. What isn’t credible is dividing the NSC by enrolment in a lower grade in an earlier year. This is what Jansen et al are using in their arguments.
This could work if there were no learners who were failing and repeating some of the grades or learners who did not pursue other pathways at the end of Grade 9 and beyond. It doesn’t take into account learners who pass away, or emigrate, or those who leave the system temporarily after falling pregnant.
It is also shocking that commentators such as Jansen consistently ignore the government’s ongoing efforts to improve schooling, as if they did not exist. For example, more than R400m has been invested to equip schools with science laboratories and science kits as well as upgraded technical workshops.
Jansen and his ilk have become accustomed to putting forward arguments that by now are typical of them. These are arguments riddled with inaccuracies and rich in descriptions of imagined problems, but with zero focus on real solutions. They base their views on what seems like a convenient avoidance of any real facts which might upset their doom and gloom narrative.
Their arguments are essentially politically motivated, their view being that the ANC government is incapable of doing anything good for education, and that the only remedy is a change of government, though it is never specified what a new government would do that would be different.
Often their strategies mirror those of the DA, whose Western Cape government recently used a typically flawed “true pass rate” calculation to claim, dishonestly, first position for this province in the matric examinations.
Let me encourage Professor Jansen and his ilk to read very balanced and informative articles published in the Daily Maverick on January 8 and 10 2018 by Dr Nicky Roberts, an associate professor in the Centre of Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg, entitled “2018 Matric results: Some (more) necessary myth-busting of unsupported claims”. In her two-part article, Roberts provided “empirical evidence” to debunk eight myths she identified since the minister of basic education released the 2018 NSC examination results on January 3 2018.
The eight “persistent myths” identified by Roberts include (a) “we are not making any progress”; (b) “matric results report on quantity and not quality”; (c) “matric is getting easier and easier”; (d) “youth who fail matric have no options open to them”; (e) “every citizen should obtain matric”; (f) “the roughly half-a-million students who don’t make it from Grade 1 to Grade 12, are ignored”; (g) “matric is written by 18-19-year-olds”; and (h) “those outside schools are a lost cause”.
After presenting compelling empirical arguments, Roberts concludes by saying: “I feel bored by the persistence of the ‘education basket mythology’. I think this is in part a weakness in the quality of journalism and educational reporting. I think all media platforms who want to be taken seriously in their analysis of the matric results, should at the very minimum familiarise themselves with the reports made promptly available by the department of basic education. The same holds for those who pose questions to ‘education experts’.”
Critics such as Jansen choose to reject improvements in the sector, and deny that the evidence presented in the performance of the 2018 class attests to a system on the rise. Seven out of nine provinces improved their results. Learners achieving passes that allow admission to bachelor’s studies increased in the number and percentage from 28.7% to 33.6% – 153,610 to 172,043. The admission to bachelor’s studies for schools serving poor communities increased from 76,300 to 84,900, against an increase of 67,876 to 76,599 for affluent schools. The number of schools serving poor communities achieving above an 80% pass rate increased from 1,625 to 1,961. All the 75 districts perform above 50%, and 34 are above 80%.
This is characteristic of a “silent revolution” in education that Jansen has chosen to ignore. This performance surpasses by far the performance of the sector when Jansen was directly involved with education, and probably that’s why he cannot appreciate or accept this reality.
Dramatic and observable system-wide improvements in teaching and learning are evident in results across the board, in both local and international assessments. In TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), SA was the most improved country in the world, which is quite opposite to what Jansen is saying.
He is living in the past and has not updated himself on where the education system is currently. It is almost as if he produces the same article annually from his archives without taking into account the developments that have taken place in the sector.
On December 16 2018, the department presented to the assessment and standards committee of Umalusi the evidence-based report of more than 500 pages, which gives a summary of what has happened in the system. This is available for scrutiny by anyone. Many of the activities contained in the aforementioned report are about writing new textbooks to help learners succeed.
Truly, Jansen and his colleagues struggle to make sense of what has been happening over the years. I would strongly suggest he update himself on developments in the sector. Our website is a wealth of knowledge.
• Mathanzima Mweli is director-general of the department of basic education.

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