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Teacher development

What have we learned?

By Jane Hofmeyr

If no education system can be better than the quality of its teachers, South Africa faces a huge challenge because the general quality of our teaching corps is poor.

How to improve teacher quality is the million dollar question that plagues governments worldwide and huge amounts of government and donor money has been spent to this end with limited impact, so what should South Africa do to successfully address this problem? Fortunately, there is now accumulating evidence from international and local research that we can use to make teacher development more effective. I consider three of the salient findings below.

What is a high quality teacher?

Many governments and people define good teachers as those who have a professional teaching qualification, but are they actually better than those who have a degree only and/or years of experience?

Patrick F. Bassett, president of the American National Association of Independent Schools, reveals that the evidence shows that “good teaching has very little to do with formal certification or methodology courses, but rather with deep knowledge of one or more content areas, passion for a subject and love of children”. He argues that “it’s easier to help new teachers learn how to teach well – using strong mentoring systems – than to teach them what to teach”.1

High-performing countries like Singapore, Japan and Finland hire from the top third or even top 10% of undergraduates with degrees in subjects, not in education, and then train them in pedagogy, as do independent schools in the United States (US).

In fact, research by the Calder Urban Institute2 found that only two forms of teacher training positively influenced student outcomes: content-focused teacher development was positively linked to pupil achievement in grades 6-12 mathematics; and on-the-job training acquired through experience correlated with enhanced effectiveness in teaching reading and mathematics in grades R–5.

Alternative routes into teaching

These findings highlight that alternative approaches to teacher training should be explored, as has happened in the US and United Kingdom (UK). Currently one-third of US teachers are qualifying through some 600 alternatives to the traditional route of university-based teacher education. This trend continues to grow as increasing numbers of career-changers and other post-baccalaureate adults seek to teach. These routes involve teaching with a trained mentor and formal instruction that deals with the theory and practice of teaching during, before or after the school year.

Research shows that it does not seem to matter which route a prospective teacher follows for certification because effective teaching does not correlate directly with the type of preparation or certification programme. “Teachers report in survey after survey that what has been most valuable to them in developing competence to teach are their actual teaching experiences.”3

In the UK, the Teacher Development Agency (TDA) requires anyone who wants to teach in England and Wales to complete initial teacher training (ITT), and qualified teacher status (QTS) demands a degree and professional training.

However, there are many different ways to complete ITT: alongside a degree, after a degree, as a part-time course alongside work, or as a full-time course, allowing prospective teachers to choose the route that best suits their needs.

Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, wants to extend the alternative routes and shift the focus of teacher training away from universities to schools themselves with a number of new ‘teaching schools’ setting the benchmark of professional standards.

ISASA’s M&E Programme

Locally, ISASA’s mathematics and English (M&E) Programme is an alternative model of initial teacher education. The aim is to develop high-quality black teachers specialising in mathematics and/or science through school-based training in ISASA schools. It involves a rigorous selection process of candidates of solid academic ability who are school-leavers, completing degrees or graduates. Because they are typically older than the usual teaching students, they constitute a more mature pool of trainees, who otherwise might have been lost to the profession. While they are exposed to the best classroom practice and participate in the full life of the school, they must complete a demanding academic degree and professional qualification through the University of South Africa (Unisa). The programme provides extensive support ranging from academic assistance to professional development and personal guidance from mentors.

When they graduate, they are well-prepared for teaching with solid subject knowledge, sound teaching skills and practical experience of the requirements of good schools. Their If no education system can be better than the quality of its teachers, South Africa faces a huge challenge because the general quality of our teaching corps is poor. Jane Hofmeyr Teacher development: what have we learned? BY JANE HOFMEYR from ISASA’s executive director commitment to teaching and strong sense of service to the community means that most have chosen to teach in disadvantaged public schools and low-fee independent ones. Recently, the programme attracted the attention of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA), which have committed to funding the programme as a collaborative venture.

Effective in-service teacher training (INSET)

INSET or continuing professional development is critical to upskill existing teachers. Although for decades the international consensus has been that short INSET workshops, especially onceoff ones, do not work, these are still the dominant model here.

Recent research by the Joint Education Trust (JET) reveals that from its evaluations of two different INSET models of the Western Cape Education Department, the Curriculum Teaching and Leadership Institute (CTLI) and the Lit/Num Strategy, the former has led to greater learner achievement. The CTLI programme consists of a block-release model with teachers attending two two-week residential courses, while substitute teachers stand in for them. The courses include intensive training and opportunities for forming professional peer networks. The evaluations found that the learners in their classes made significant gains in the grades 3 and 6 literacy and numeracy systemic tests, especially when five of more teachers from the same school attended.

By contrast, the Lit/Num Strategy model, which is like the typical donor programme of a five-day training course followed by on-site support and afternoon training sessions from service providers, yielded disappointing test results.

JET4 points to the primacy of content-focused INSET in our context because of the huge deficits in teachers’ subject knowledge. To help teachers convert their new knowledge into good practice, regular on-site coaching and mentoring of teachers in classrooms is also important.

Teacher development in South Africa

South Africa faces four main challenges with regard to teachers: we are producing too few quality teachers; teacher education – both in initial and in-service – is of a low standard; too few of those who graduate as teachers enter or stay in teaching, and the quality of the existing teaching corps is generally poor.

From its study of supply and quality of South Africa’s teachers (2011) the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) argues that the shortage of quality teachers is a major reason why our education system is underperforming.5

According to the CDE (and the DBE’s own research) South Africa is producing about a third of the country’s annual requirement of some 25 000 new teachers. The shortage is especially serious in key subjects like maths, science, English, commerce and technology, and in indigenous languages and numeracy in the Foundation phase.

However, government’s 2010 survey of teacher education courses at higher education institutions6 showed that only about a third of them currently training teachers should qualify for accreditation as providers of teacher education. This has serious implications for the quality of their graduates and the problem is compounded by the fact that the points required for entry into teacher education by the education faculties are lower than all other faculties.

The DBE has responded to the huge challenges with a 2011- 2025 Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development.7 This comprehensive plan is informed by a Teacher Education Summit of key stakeholders, but it is not notably innovative. Initial teacher training is still firmly vested in the hands of higher education institutions, alternative routes into teaching are not explored and the statutory requirements for teaching in a public or independent school are still a degree and professional teaching qualification.

The DBE has recognised that INSET must concentrate on building teachers’ subject knowledge, but the other key research evidence about effective continuing professional development should also be incorporated in departmental courses.

More flexible policies needed

The scale and nature of the teacher supply and development problems and the urgent need to tackle them are now better understood by stakeholders. However, ‘more of the same’ won’t cut it: more flexible policies are needed to enable innovative models and strategies to be initiated and evaluated. Here the private sector could play a key role because government alone cannot address the problems with the scale, quality and agility needed. Strong leadership and creative initiatives by public and private actors must turn plans and lessons into effective action.


1. Bassett, P.F. (2009) ‘Searching for great teachers.’ Available at:

2. Harris, D.N. and Sass, T.R. (2008) ‘Teacher training, teacher quality, and student achievement, working paper 3’. Available at:

3. Feistritzer, C.E. (2005) Profile of Alternate Route Teachers. Available at:

4. See and De Chaisemartin, T. (2010) ‘Cape Teaching and Leadership Institute (CTLI) evaluation: teacher selection.’ Johannesburg: JET.

5. Oberholzer, A. (ed.) (2011) ‘Value in the classroom: the quantity and quality of South Africa’s teachers’. Available at: report.pdf.

6. See, for example:

7. Available at: source=web&cd=3&sqi=2&ved=0CHwQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2 xRz3M%253D%26…&ei=muWwT7OcO4bf8QOyzcSdCQ&usg=AF QjCNHLvh3n1KLmWVEddRHWTq_gfZGVCA.

Category: Winter 2012

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