14/12/2016 04:59 SAST | Updated 15/12/2016 12:47 SAST

South African Learners And Educators Are Capable, They Are Being Failed By Bad Leadership

We have an abundance of resources in the education system. How can we use them better, for better results?

South African students from Chief Albert Luthuli Primary and High School in Daveyton attend the event 'I am constitution' at Constitution Hill on June 15, 2016 in Johannesburg, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the June 1976 uprising.

South African education is in crisis. The 2016 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness report ranks the quality of South Africa's primary school education as 126th out of 138 countries scored. After a brief stint as third last in the world for maths and science education, South Africa has descended to dead last in the 2016 rankings. The sample of business executives surveyed determined that an inadequately educated workforce is the third most problematic factor for doing business in South Africa.

Altogether, the Global Competitiveness report gives a strong indication that international leaders in business do not believe South African students are prepared to productively contribute to the South African workforce or to participate in the global economy.

Of course, we know that South African education did not stumble into this tragic state. The legacy of apartheid haunts South Africa's students and South Africa's economy. Not only has inequitable distribution of resources since the Bantu Education Act damned students of color, but it has set back white South Africans, as well. Indeed, the American civil rights experience shows us that segregation disadvantages the oppressor at the same time as it dooms the oppressed.

Let's be clear: South African students and educators are not inherently deficient. In fact, they are wildly capable, but caught in the crosshairs of a leadership crisis.

Schools lacking socioeconomic and racial diversity are academically and metacognitively deprived. Students in segregated schools, whether the result of law or circumstance, are less successful in demonstrating the skills required to positively participate in today's globalized economy: cooperation in problem-solving, consideration of diverse perspectives, and leadership in a multicultural environment.

But, let's not fool ourselves about where fault lies. The crisis in education in South Africa is not a crisis of human capacity or financial resource. Remember, the education sector in South Africa was allocated R268 billion in 2016. To put this into perspective, the World Bank reports that, in 2012, South Africa was ranked 10th in the world for expenditure on education as a percentage of total GDP. And, let's be clear: South African students and educators are not inherently deficient. In fact, they are wildly capable, but caught in the crosshairs of a leadership crisis. Neither government nor private educational institutions trust in South African educators and invest sufficiently in professional development or leadership development of staff to ensure their ability to drive student achievement.

The South African national curriculum, embraced by both public and private schools, does little to challenge, stretch, and equip South African students to become globally competitive. Poor leadership and direction in government and independent schooling has left our South African students of all socioeconomic levels unprepared to productively contribute to the future of South Africa and to compete in an increasingly globalized society.

What we must do instead is to leverage the abundant resources we have in our highly capable South African educators and our highly competent South African students to create more from more.

Noted author Stephen Covey wrote, "I have become convinced that the biggest leadership challenge of our times is not insufficient resources per se, but rather our inability to access the most valuable resources at our disposal." In this vein, we must resist the urge to characterise the education crisis in South Africa as a demand to create more from less.

What we must do instead is to leverage the abundant resources we have in our highly capable South African educators and our highly competent South African students to create more from more. At SPARK Schools, a network of independent primary schools founded in 2012 in Johannesburg, South African children, nurtured by South African parents, taught by South African educators, led by South African school leaders are beating the odds to reach globally competitive standards. How?

I wish I could tell you that our methods at SPARK are exclusive or expensive, that what we do is exceptional in some way that prevents the rest of the South African education sector from doing the same. That's not the case, however. Instead, we simply aim to execute the right things in the right way in order to develop a solid foundation for student achievement. And here's our secret: we teach core values as deliberately as we teach algebra or reading comprehension. We believe that what students learn to value will drive their behaviors through and beyond school, propelling them to globally-engaged citizenship well into adulthood. And with the right values internalized, students will achieve as a result of their strength of character, not develop character as an afterthought when time allows in the final weeks before school ends each summer.

Core values and social-emotional development are rarely built into curriculum in schools, but at SPARK, we go as far as to include demonstration of core values on our report cards, to encourage students to self-reflect on the ongoing development of their core values on a termly basis, and to speak about core values with parents at conferences, parents evenings, and enrichment events.

Our students have performed extraordinarily well in comparison to the country's most elite students. We were so confident in our students' abilities that we asked Pearson South Africa to administer the released version of the 2014 Annual National Assessment when nationwide testing was canceled in 2015. We asked them to test our students for the next grade level. Our Grade 1 students took the Grade 2 assessment. Our Grade 3 students took the Grade 4 assessment, and so on. When we compared their test results against those of Quintile 5 government schools, the most expensive government schools in the country, we were thrilled to see that our students had surpassed the average scores of students in these elite schools who had taken the assessment in their own grade level.

That is to say that, in both maths and literacy, our Grade 2 students beat Grade 3 students in significantly more expensive schools. Even our Grade R students surpassed Grade 1 students who took the same test. We are delighted about our students' achievement, but we are also thrilled that by emphasizing core values, our students have learned to be terrific friends, loving family members, and positive contributors to their communities.

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Pupils of Ngcendese School in Mandela's homeland of Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Our core values are so integral to our identity that they form the acronym SPARK, and our students literally wear the values on their chest when they "dress for success" each morning.

  1. First, Service. During our daily community gathering, our scholars pledge to serve their classmates, community, and country. They participate in meaningful service projects, including cleaning up local parks, collecting and distributing water during the drought, and volunteering at local orphanages. They assist struggling classmates. They learn about and commit to bettering South African society. Each year on Heritage Day, our students wear their family's cultural dress and share food and traditions with their peers, recognizing that service to country often begins with recognition of the beauty of diversity.
  2. Second, Persistence. We buy into the value of grit in both our staff and our students. This, we believe, is the key to achievement. Our blended learning model, in which we integrate technology into traditional teaching, employs software that emphasizes failing a certain amount of times before succeeding. Our educators are recruited on their track record of persistence through challenge, both personally and professionally.
  3. Third, Achievement. In our daily creed, our students promise to achieve their best in all that they do. Each year, we celebrate Youth Day as University Day in our schools, and our students spend that day visualizing their path to tertiary education and careers of their choice and hearing from community members about the unique and exciting jobs they have chosen. Our students also have great examples in our staff members who are selected from thousands of applicants annually and who work unbelievably hard to drive student achievement.
  4. Fourth, Responsibility. This value strikes me as especially important given the state of politics in South Africa, and in my home country, and across the world at this time. Imagine a generation of students who had promised each morning of their school career to be responsible for their actions and who were encouraged to hold themselves, their peers, and their teachers to account on that point. Our students are well-versed in tools for conflict resolution and are as capable of using their words to speak their mind as they are in using their words to apologize.
  5. Finally, Kindness. Nothing soft about it. Our students aren't simply nice. They treat all their peers with respect and dignity. They believe in the worth of their peers, no matter their socioeconomic background or the color of their skin.

While we are partial to the specific core values we have chosen at SPARK, what matters most is how a program of core values is implemented. And therein lies the question: Why don't more schools adopt a similar approach? Well, to instill values in this way takes an enormously conscious and intentional plan implemented by an equally conscious and intentional educator. The infusion of core values at SPARK is no accident. It is the golden thread that runs through hundreds of hours of professional development for our staff, daily social-emotional development for our students, and the culture of our organization at large.

When I moved to South Africa in August 2012, I arrived naively believing that South Africa could become the first country in the world to eliminate education inequity. I'm thrilled to report that, more than four years later, I'm no longer naive, but still convinced. This is a remarkable country. We cannot fall prey to the myth of insufficiency or "not-enoughness" in our education system. With courage, confidence, and gratitude, we must commit to the hard work of providing education opportunities for all.

This article is an adaptation from a TEDxJohannesburg talk Bailey gave in 2016 - blogs editor.