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How to stem the Matthew Effect in education

There is unanimous agreement that South Africa’s education is in crisis. What we can’t agree on is how to fix it. It seems that everyone has their two cents’ worth of wisdom: “What we need is …”, “It’s time to …”, “The thing is …”, “You see, if only they had …” — we’ve become a nation of taxi drivers with myriad quick-fixes. And despite all the talk, not much seems to be happening.

Last week at the Integrated Education Programme (IEP) conference, Dr Luis Crouch, an education specialist from RTI International, presented his view on education in South Africa, based on 14 years’ worth of statistical analysis. While this is yet another person’s point of view, he is an independent expert who has, as a starting point, a myth-busting approach. He first described what won’t work as a solution to our schooling woes. I liked this; it made his suggestions on how to fix the problems that much more legitimate.

As a backdrop to the presentation, Crouch quoted Matthew 25:29:

For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.

The “Matthew Effect” (a term coined by Keith Stanovich, a psychologist who has done extensive research on reading) denotes processes whereby inequality is created or maintained. In literacy terms, learners at the end of grade one who can read well begin a pattern of outperforming those learners who cannot read well. With time, the gap widens. Learners who score poorly in literacy from the beginning will go on to fall behind in all other subject areas. The same applies to numeracy.

Crouch believes that there is probably a Matthew Effect happening in education in South Africa right now. He has worked in many countries around the world and nowhere else has he seen such inequality in the level of educational quality as he has here. After analysing educational statistics for many years, he strongly believes that most claims in the press (usually the ones with a shock factor) are not based on sound research. For example, in the early 1990s there was a huge alarm bell rung about the learner drop-out problem in South Africa. Crouch proved that, at least in primary education, there was no problem. The numbers were simply wrong. (In secondary education there was some drop-out, but no more than in, say, Mexico.) Further, most recipes for how to improve education in South Africa are not backed up by research. For example:

  • International research demonstrating the link between increasing teacher salaries and their performance is weak. Doing that in South Africa is unlikely to lead to improvements in learning for the learners. He believes that in itself it is a good thing to do, but it should not be seen as a fixer strategy.
  • Learner-educator (LE) ratio seems to have little to do with how much kids are learning, within a reasonable range (50 learners in a class is not a reasonable range).He doesn’t think that reducing class size from 32 to 25 will make a difference.
  • Qualifications of teachers was hailed as the magic bullet to education. This would be a valid point if qualifications accurately reflected competence. Qualifications have increased enormously in the past decade or two, yet learner results seem unchanged. The actual content knowledge of teachers, and their competence to cover the curriculum, is the key, not the certificate that claims their qualifications.
  • Reducing poverty will not necessarily lead to improved grades. While it is true that children of wealthy parents have better literacy skills than children of poor parents (there is an 86% correlation of reading score and parental wealth), this difference is valid only when the sole statistical variable is the socio-economic status (SES) of parents. When also including variables such as good school governance and teacher quality, the difference in reading scores between learners from wealthy parents and poor parents is reduced by 75%! Further, in the US, statistics have shown that good teachers can almost completely eliminate SES and ethnic differences.

On the last point, Crouch believes that, more importantly than SES, a range of cultural, sociological, linguistic and managerial issues seems to be affecting learner performance. Much more research is needed to understand these influencing factors.

So, just what is it going to take to improve learner performance by the 30% to 40% required to effect change in South Africa’s educational quality? Crouch believes this can be achieved through the following suggestions:

  • Focus on the poor. Our goal should be to raise the national average and, specifically, improve the learning of the least developed.
  • National quality control is critical to ensure the same standard of education across the country. This should be backed up by local-level quality monitoring — school by school — of cognitive development.
  • Management practices at schools really matter. We need less social engineering and more management at each school. Hold people accountable for results, but don’t micromanage — unless they don’t get results. If they don’t, then measure them on how well they work through the curriculum.
  • Improve actual teacher competence, not paper qualifications.
  • Really focus on getting foundation-phase literacy and numeracy right. More, and more high-quality, early child development is crucial.
  • Literacy is vital. By the end of grade four, each learner should be reading fluently. (In Cuba, no learner passes grade two if he/she can’t read.) The act of reading fluently wires your brain differently — this needs to happen early on in brain development. He quoted research stating that to improve reading scores in grade one or two takes about 20 minutes per day; to achieve the same results in grade four takes about four hours per day! This again points to the importance of foundation-phase intervention.
  • South Africa needs much more home-language instruction. He fully supports mother-tongue education.

A question from the audience was why learners in countries such as Malawi and Kenya – which are very poor, have massive inequality and a colonial past — consistently outscore learners in South Africa, despite the fact that many of their classes are under trees and their governments spend relatively much less on education than the South African government does.

Crouch responded that in those countries it probably has to do with issues of good coverage of the curriculum; good time-on-task; good learner discipline; and accountability (each school must post its scores and accounting on a public notice board). Better systems, basically.

He closed by telling the story of education in Uruguay, which too was in crisis. An intense teacher-support programme was implemented. Every other Saturday, teachers had to attend a full-day training session, for which they were paid. The training focused on sequencing of the curriculum (which is so needed in South Africa given the confusion around implementing OBE). The result: a 30% to 40% improvement in learner performance in Uruguay.

Unless we begin to implement some of the measures suggested above, educators in South Africa are probably indulging in the Matthew Effect.


  • Steve Vosloo

    Steve Vosloo is the 21st Century Learning Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. He is a past Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, where he researched youth and digital media. He blogs at Except where otherwise noted, content released under a Creative Commons License.