What does research tell us about teachers, teaching and learner performance in mathematics?

If government and private sector interventions to improve learner achievement in mathematics are to succeed, more will be needed than increasing the supply of teachers and upgrading their formal qualifications. This is the finding of a new Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) report.

CDE’s research focused on ‘second-tier’ schools, a group of about 1 000 schools that performed above the national average for mathematics in the 2010 National Senior Certificate (NSC), but below the 6700 top performing ‘first-tier’ schools, which produced 50 per cent of mathematics passes. The performance of the second-tier schools was erratic but they could offer scope for expanding the pool of learners who pass mathematics and science in the NSC. To this end CDE researched the factors that might influence the quality of mathematics and science teaching and learning in a sample of 124 urban and rural second-tier schools in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

The main findings included the surprising conclusion that neither teachers’ formal qualifications in mathematics and science, nor their years of experience made a significant difference to their schools’ results in mathematics and science. Similarly, there was no significant relationship between the learner: educator ratio (LER) and results of the schools.

“To the lay person, these results challenge ‘common sense’ ideas that more and better-qualified teachers are the obvious remedy for poor performance in education” said Dr Jane Hofmeyr, senior education consultant at CDE. “However surprising, CDE’s research shows that these findings are generally in line with those of other recent South African and international studies.”

Formal qualifications do not guarantee teacher quality.  As our national education departments have recognised, the standard and substance of initial teacher education (ITE) programmes is generally poor in South Africa, and varies hugely across our higher education institutions. CDE’s research confirmed what other researchers have found: in the main, teachers of mathematics in SA have poor subject content knowledge and lack the pedagogical skills to teach mathematics effectively. Neither their initial nor in-service teacher education has been good enough for them to acquire these.

However, another worrying common finding is teachers’ tendency to exaggerate their own competence, and a complacency that impacts on their willingness to see the need for improving their mathematics and science teaching.

Aside from these essentially negative findings, CDE’s research did throw up some positive influences on teaching and learning.

The schools that performed consistently did not have frequent teacher turnover”, Dr Hofmeyr explained. “This indicates that stability, consistency and low turnover of staff in a school, more than qualifications may be associated with better teaching and have a positive effect on learner performance.”

Another positive influence was the number of teachers teaching mathematics in a school. More than one teacher teaching a subject at a particular level means more opportunities for collaboration, mutual support and sharing of ideas.

Taken together, the research findings that CDE reviewed suggest that the standard education improvement strategies are unlikely to pay the dividends hoped for in South Africa, unless the other pervasive problems are addressed. Unless educators’ lack of key competencies, professionalism and complacency are tackled, decreasing class size, increasing learning and teaching resources, more school facilities or curriculum change will not produce higher learner achievement. The same goes for additional teacher qualifications, unless they produce teachers of quality.  It follows, therefore, that improving the standard and substance of ITE so that all newly qualified teachers are well-prepared and able to teach effectively, is arguably one of the most urgent and meaningful interventions needed to improve South African schooling.

Government has already embarked on this process and the private sector can play an important partnership role. As Dr Hofmeyr emphasizes, “Unless we get ITE right, we will forever be engaged in remedial in-service training, which has absorbed huge amounts of money and effort – to little effect. Our priority must be producing new teachers who are truly well-qualified.”

Note to Editors:

The report, What does research tell us about teachers, teaching and learner performance in mathematics?  is available at www.cde.org.za . This research was funded by the Zenex Foundation.

Media Enquires:

For further enquiries or to confirm an interview with Dr Jane Hofmeyr, Senior Education Consultant at CDE, please contact Marius Roodt (Communications Officer: Media).

Tel: (011) 482 5140

Cell: 082 779 7035

Email: media@cde.org.za


The CDE is an independent policy research and advocacy organisation. It is one of South Africa’s leading development think tanks, focusing on critical development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation. Through examining South African realities and international experience, CDE formulates practical policy proposals outlining ways in which South Africa can tackle major social and economic challenges.