[Image Caption: Dr. Vusi Chuta, Fezile Dabi District Director – Free State Department of Education]
The Department of Basic Education’s recent acknowledgement and recognition of Fezile Dabi District’s excellent and consistent academic performance of 90% and above for four consecutive years [2016-2019], clearly suggests the district has found a winning formula. The Fezile Dabi District is based in the north of the Free State Province. This winning formula can be attributed to the collaboration between Kagiso Shanduka Trust (KST) and the Free State Department of Education (FSDoE) to improve education in the Free State province in implementing an integrated district whole school development model, addressing infrastructure development, curriculum support, social welfare and leadership in schools at a district level.
The District’s success in producing the best academic outcomes ahead of its peers nationally lies in its ‘teacher-quality and quality-teaching’ approach, which is anchored and complemented by dynamic and well-structured teacher development programmes.
Signed in 2013, the MoU between KST and the FSDoE served as a vital component in the transformation of basic education in South Africa. The nature of the KST partnership with the Free State Department of Education, has contributed significantly towards getting the programme off the ground and thus yielding positive results.
In this article I share how our District, through these teacher development initiatives, supports teachers as instructional leaders and the schools to improve learning outcomes, especially in Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I also attempt to highlight some of the basic challenges related to poor learning outcomes.
Developing teachers as instructional leaders to improve learner performance
Recent research findings show that teachers’ content knowledge not only matter in learner achievement but has also become an important variable in improving learning. Furthermore, the findings also suggest that teachers with greater content knowledge in each subject and those with teaching experience were more likely to ask higher level of cognitively based questions. In addition, good content preparation is critical for high-quality teaching and learning across all the school-based subjects.
The District did not only improve its overall pass percentage but went on to register good performance in subjects such as Mathematics and English First Additional Language, putting the District in pole position in the province. Excellent learner performance was also registered in Physical Sciences, Geography and Economics.
In this regard, teacher development is critical because it leads to improved and sustained learning outcomes. It also deepens teacher content knowledge and pedagogy. Furthermore, it strengthens the capacity of subject advisors, teachers and principals to deal with areas that need focus. This also helps to address matters that would otherwise directly hamper curriculum delivery.
Further research demonstrated that quality teachers make a significant difference in improving learner achievement. To achieve its strategic mandate of improving learner performance, the District has for a period of six years, streamed-lined and prioritised teacher development. The idea is to improve and sustain performance in critical subjects such as Mathematics and Physical Sciences.
This intentional and conscious focus by the District found expression in the statement that: “teachers were [once] viewed as central to the problem of learner under-achievement, yet [they] are now recognised as the solution”. Thus, Districts that continue to provide meaningful teacher development services stand a good chance of improving Grade 12 learner performance, as well as sustain internal grades attainment rate.
For the past two decades, the focus was mainly on Curriculum Assessment and Policy Statements (CAPS) rather than on awakening teachers’ awareness of their inabilities or focusing on their competencies in teaching, among others, specific subjects such as Mathematics and Science.
Positive impact of teacher development
In my experience as a District Director, I have, firstly, realized that the teacher development initiatives we have embarked upon (through social partners such as Kagiso Shanduka Trust, and others) over the past four years, have contributed immensely to the overall performance, significantly in Mathematics and Science.
Secondly, though significant progress has been made in equipping teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills in the two subjects, there is evidence that much is yet to be done in improving teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogy for improved learner attainment.
Teacher empowerment through Professional Learning Communities
Experts have constantly emphasised the importance of empowering teachers through a variety of means, including collaboration and development of a culture of recognising shared responsibilities and values; and through Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).
As Dr Francesca Caena (an education expert and consultant for the European Commission’s Working Group on school policy and teacher education) suggests, the idea of knowledge and learning is embedded in social contexts and experiences. This idea is promoted through interactive, reflective exchanges and assumption that participation in PLCs leads to changes in teaching practices and enhancement of learning outcomes.
There is a view that PLCs, as structures through which teachers share good practices to support learning, where applied, helped teachers to develop their expertise, especially novice teachers. They can also determine their own developmental needs to better their understanding and the use of CAPS. Furthermore, teachers learn how best they can utilise learning materials and working in teams to support one another for improved learning outcomes.
Education specialists argue that the absence of practices that subject advisors employ to support the work of teachers and to improve quality teaching compromises the envisaged learning outcomes.
It is critical to understand the specific role of subject advisory units in districts to support the work of teachers and also strengthening the work of PLCs.
These entail, among others:
- Visibility: Subject advisors must identify themselves as the relevant personnel in the development and support of teachers’ work to improve sound teaching and complement competency level of teachers. This can be achieved through classroom observation as guided by Integrated Quality Management Systems policy. They need to continuously observe teachers in class to help them improve their teaching techniques.
- Instructional Leadership: provision of leadership by subject advisors in ensuring that PLCs are a focal structure and are functional across the schools in support of teachers’ work to improve learning is crucial. This is because of their strategic placement as a link between provincial education department, schools and the public for improved curriculum delivery.
- Supporting Teaching & Learning: Teachers often resist change, especially when it is not adequately communicated to them. This is specifically why subject advisors are expected to facilitate such changes either through workshops or well-planned training sessions within the PLCs framework.
- Monitoring and Evaluation: Introduction and well-co-ordinated monitoring and evaluation systems and structures are necessary in ensuring developmental and capacity building programmes. This include ensuring that training efforts and plans have been fully understood and implemented. Subject advisors’ focus on this vital part of continued development programme would yield positive results and further improve teachers’ motivation levels.
In 2017 a research by five education and professional development experts, Rauhuhali, Kutame, Mutshaeni, Mokhele and Maluleke from the Universities of Venda and Fort Hare respectively, made an important finding. It cited pure lack of capacity and resources as major challenges in the implementation of professional development to promote quality teaching and learning.
Therefore, the role of the district office subject advisors is viewed, not only in terms of their facilitation role; in-service trainings and developmental programmes but also in relation to the impact of initiatives aimed at enhancing teacher-quality and quality teaching.
In response to the issues highlighted above, our district has adopted a position that specifically focuses on building capacity among our teachers in order to sustain learner performance, not only at the level of Grade 12, but across all grades and circuits.
In the context of this discussion, emphasis is on professional development programmes and training aimed to improve teacher-quality in Mathematics, Economics, Accounting, Physical Sciences, Geography and English subject advisors.
In collaboration with KST, we organised series of teacher developmental programmes and trainings for subject advisors to enhance their content knowledge in the above six subjects, for purposes of supporting teachers to improve learning outcomes.
This was followed by a similar two years’ comprehensive developmental programme for teachers in the above subjects. It is through such initiatives that several content gaps were identified and immediately addressed. This resulted in the improved performance of the district in all these subjects since 2016 to date.
In my view, the collaboration with KST presents the best partnership model in the sector clearly designed to improve and enhance teacher-quality and quality-teaching in our schools.
“Micro-wave” developmental programmes such as afternoon and once-off workshops must be carefully looked at and be reviewed to maximise their impact. Teachers in our district welcomed and affirmed the importance of these programmes and the visible support provided by our subject advisors to boost their subject content knowledge for effective teaching.
More about Dr Chuta
Dr. Chuta is the District Director of the Fezile Dabi District, Free State Department of Education since January 2012 to date. His role as a District Director is to oversee the operational and strategic efficiency of the District in 10 Circuits with a total of 177 schools.
Dr. Chuta obtained his PhD degree in District Level Policy and Practice for supporting Instructional Leadership by School Principals in South Africa, which was conferred at the University of Free State in 2018.
In the National Senior Certificate examination results of 2018 and 2017, the Fezile Dabi District was the top performing district in the country. In 2019 the District was the top performing district in the Free State Province with an impressive pass rate of 90.3%.