The Low Achievement Trap is a rare and remarkable book. In the world of comparative education, an academic field intended to promote the learning from others to better understand the "self" - a national education system, its problems and possible solutions - most so-called "comparative studies" are actually single-country studies that include extensive reviews of the literature, or what is now in the lingo of bureaucratic educators and ministry officials called "benchmarking".
In to this breach have stepped three prominent scholars from the United States, South Africa and Botswana, who with the support of the Spencer Foundation, Stanford University in California, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in Pretoria and the Faculty of Education, University of Botswana (the home bases of the three lead researchers). They have mobilised 14 other social scientists and educators to conduct and report on this significant cross-border investigation of formal education in two countries. They are all to be commended for their effort and its importance to both South Africa and Botswana.
May this volume not be forgotten and ignored. Martin Carnoy is an eminent economist who has focused on education and has consistently conducted rigorous inter-disciplinary research into the value of education (he is a key critic of rates of return analysis) seeking both to train others and to achieve intelligible and practical results from research. Linda Chisholm is one of the stellar South African academics that participated in the struggle to expose the fallacies of apartheid education through her base in university Education Policy Units (EPU) both at Wits (Johannesburg) and in Durban. She is now at the HSRC. She coordinated the South African part of the project. Bagele Chilisa is well known in Botswana as a leader in educational research and her extensive studies of the parameters between education, HIV and AIDS and how to confront the epidemic. She coordinated the Botswana side of this research.14 other people were involved in this study in both South Africa and Botswana. The Spencer Foundation, through Stanford University, made possible the consortium of South African Universities' schools of education and the inclusion of UB in the Project.
In Botswana the data collection was led by Thenjiwe Major and Nnunu Tsheko and involved Paul Nleya, Onalenna Senwedi, Bose Emmanuel Ketlhaotswe and Onyetswe Tshabo. This study led to six doctoral dissertations and three masters theses. In Botswana 120 teachers participated in the study.70 of them were able to attend a workshop in Mafeking, South Africa, in July 2011, to consider the results of the study. Hundreds more people were involved in various ways in this project in Botswana and South Africa. There has already been some replication of the collaborative research design, data collection, data analysis and report writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Botswana and South Africa are widely different countries in social, economic and political history and this study recognises and takes into account the different contexts found both sides of the border. The greatest contrast is in population, as on this side of the Molopo there are only two million people compared to 50 million in South Africa. They are both considered to be middle-income countries with high inequalities in income distribution.
Taking 1995 as a base year, both Botswana and South Africa had the same GDP per capita, but over the next 14 years Botswana was more successful in raising it (P13, 204 to P9 812 per person). They have relatively similar Human Development Index (HDI), life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, gender inequality and non-income human development index value. The study chose to concentrate on 126 Grade Six classrooms in 116 government schools on both sides of the border - private schools were not part of the study.
The methodology allowed for the assessment of teacher levels of training, and the knowledge and skills teachers had retained and were able to utilise in the present. Students in the classrooms were given specially designed mathematical knowledge tests. Before and after tests assessed levels of mathematical knowledge the learners were meant to have on entering Grade six compared to what the students learned during the academic year.
The methodology allowed the researchers to relate specific learners to specific teachers in specific classrooms and schools. This rich comparative education study has many research findings. A few have been selected to relate here to give some sense of the comprehensiveness of the study. The overall observation is that, having limited the study to 100 schools in the border area with 9, 157 learners in the North West, South Africa, and in Botswana to 60 schools with 6, 835 learners found at schools in Gaborone, Lobatse South East and Kgatleng, it could be argued that populations were tapped that allowed for reliable conclusions.
The focus of this cross-boarder study became the teaching and learning of mathematics, assessing both the levels of knowledge and teaching effectiveness of mathematics teachers and the mathematics learning of students. The students in Botswana along the border were found to be making greater improvements in mathematics learning compared to their counterparts across the border in the North West Province in South Africa.
Low achievement is a critical problem in both Botswana and South Africa. Though the study found that students in the sample in Botswana were performing better than the sample across the border in South Africa, this does not mean that Botswana is doing well. On other international assessments of achievement Botswana has ranked poorly compared to other countries. There is an education crisis in both countries. What is particularly relevant is that the study has confirmed prior findings relating to the quality of education being based on the level of knowledge of teachers. In this case the mathematical knowledge of teachers has a direct relationship to the levels of attainment in mathematics of their students.
Competent and knowledgeable teachers covered the syllabus, taught the subject better and knew what they were meant to be teaching. More knowledgeable teachers produced students who could demonstrate higher levels of mathematical attainment. What goes on in the classroom is of critical importance to learners. This has significant implications for teacher training, selection and emphases, and for policy concerning educational development.
Education systems cannot expect to produce positive results if the teachers they employ are merely "warm bodies" occupying positions in schools without the knowledge and skills to facilitate the learning of their students. A number of lessons can be learned from this study in relation to possible strategies to be employed to improve mathematics learning. This multivariate study did not come up with any one major conclusion. Instead it underlines a variety of interrelated variables concerning the role of teachers in students' learning and what can be done about it.
The recommendations concern improvements to teacher selection and training and improved resource allocation.More knowledgeable teacher trainers are also required. A vicious circle exists between low expectations for teachers and for student learning. When teachers don't know a subject they both teach it poorly and give less time than prescribed to it. This is the low achievement trap that southern African countries are caught in. The Low Achievement Trap is available to those who are interested in three forms, and can be downloaded from the web.You are encouraged to do so, as a short review cannot do this extensive comparative education research project justice.