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IN 1995, Wade Roush published an interesting article entitled "Arguing over Why Johnny Can't Read".
Roush started this article with a rather provocative statement: "If difficulty learning to read, write, or do math at expected aptitude levels were an infectious disease, American schoolchildren would be in the middle of an epidemic."
Long before Roush, Lary Cuban had pointed out that education is one of the areas that seems to face the same problems over and over again.
The South African education system seems to be going through the same thing. South Africa finds itself faced with the same problem of mathematical illiteracy and illiteracy 14 years later.
Teachers learn during their training that psychological problems may not be easy to diagnose, but once diagnosed, they are not that difficult to solve.
The problem facing pupils today is a synthetic one. However, synthetic problems like under-qualified, unqualified and incompetent teachers are not easy to solve. It literally takes moving heaven and earth to resolve a synthetic problem.
South African pupils are illiterate because of our new education system and the problem of under-qualified and unqualified teachers.
Contrary to Orwellian promises of equality, equity and social justice, teachers are busy preparing children, particularly black children, for permanent underclass citizenship.
Our new world-class training has managed in 10 years to do what took apartheid ideologues and their education system four decades to accomplish.
Some of the teachers employed in our public schools are simply incorrigible and no amount of training can change them. We have been training and retraining teachers but our schools continue to be centres of inefficiency, apathy, disillusionment and hopelessness.
Under-qualified, unqualified, incompetent and inefficient teachers are known to all. They are known by the schools where they are employed, by the districts, and most certainly by pupils.
The most frightening thing is that in our description of the problem we always avoid talking about the contribution and the damage caused to our children.
Wits Professor Bram Fleisch, in his book Primary Education in Crisis: Why South African Schoolchildren Underachieve in Reading and Mathematics, said every commentator seems to avoid talking about the quality of teaching and teachers in general.
In Fleisch's words, talking about the problem of under-qualified, unqualified teachers is a forbidden topic - like talking about sex.
Our education system is facing two fundamental challenges. At basic education level, it is the problem of implementation and at higher education level, as correctly pointed out by the Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande - the problem of transformation.
Nonetheless, the two are integrally interlinked. Unless we address the challenges facing basic education, which are the challenges inhibiting the implementation of the new education system, there is no way in which we can address some of the issues facing higher education.
What is the agenda of basic education? Is it implementation? And if not, I don't see how it could be anything else unless we deviate from outcome-based education (OBE).
We have been trying to implement OBE for 10 years or so, and I don't really see how we can freely talk about meaningful transformation unless we address basic education.
One of the sobering realities about the challenges facing our education system can be located in recent international studies around illiteracy and mathematical illiteracy.
The studies include the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 (TIMSS), in which Grade 8 pupils in South Africa were compared to 46 other countries in both the developed and developing countries.
South African pupils scored the lowest in maths and science compared to their counterparts. Teachers, scholars and everybody else were quick to point a finger at the government.
Other subsequent studies included the Progress in Reading Literacy Study conducted just three years after TIMSS in 2003, which was also a shocking exposé.
South African children were found to be dismal compared to the other 41 countries in the study.
Our children's score was 302 compared to the International average of 500. What this also revealed was lack of progress from TIMSS, in 2003, in which our children scored lower than Serbia, Tunisia, Palestine, Botswana and Ghana.
If children can't read, write or do maths or science that could mean two things - their education system is flawed or that the teachers teaching these children are simply not qualified.
One of the main causes of illiteracy is incompetent, unqualified and under-qualified teachers. What is the government going to do about it?
lLetsoko is director of Strategic Workplace Diversity Management at Wits Business School.