Newsletter 123 Teacher Accountability, Social Change Theory, Teacher Capacity & School Leadership

Summary of an interview with Jonathan Jansen on (1) teacher accountability (2) social change theory (3) teacher capacity building (4) school leadership

Given the multifaceted political, social, and cultural ecologies within South Africa, how are the current education reforms addressing students’ opportunities to access quality education?

  • Not well. South Africa’s education system is dominated by union politics whereby political intervention is neutralized since those in power depend on an alliance with the dominant trade unions for their future positions
  •  As a result, two school systems have emerged after apartheid—a small, well resourced Black and White (integrated) school system to which the elites send their children (including the unionists who disrupt the majority Black school system) and a largely Black, under-resourced school system where more than 60% of the children cannot read, write, and calculate at the grade level.
  • What sustains this dual school system is, in large part, a union that disrupts school time in the bottom three-quarters of the disadvantaged school system for up to one third of instructional time allocated; that protects incompetent teachers (their fee paying members) at the expense of the children; and that prevents any attempts at accountability through systems of supervision and inspection, or even testing for subject matter or professional knowledge.
  • The fact that South Africa spends more than any other African country on education—either as a percentage of GDP or in terms of overall government expenditure—and achieves the worst results, is not simply a legacy of apartheid, though the past is obviously a factor.
  • It is also a consequence of a social and educational ecology dominated by union politics and the related absence of political intervention by government. More than elsewhere, your chances of entering university, and succeeding, depends on which of the two school systems, described above, you attended. Those from rural schools where English-language instruction is limited will find access even more difficult than those children from urban schools with more English language exposure. Those from deracialized middle class schools, where Black and White children attend, routinely enter and succeed in higher education.
  • In other words, new forms of race and class interactions combined to determine scholastic success, or not.


What advice would you offer to educational leaders navigating post-conflict societies?

  • It is hard. Change is difficult. The challenge is not only one of knowledge and strategy; it is also one of emotions and spirituality.
  • The one thing I have learned is that you cannot change something—like a racially divided university—unless you understand t h e p roblem d e e p l y . Th i s means understanding not simply the racism or racial behaviors on display, but where it comes from; how it is revealed within a university or a school; how it is sustained; how it is understood by both perpetrators of the bad behavior as well as by its targets; what it does to people; what language it uses; how it comes to assume commonsense for some; what happens when someone throws the proverbial spanner in the racial works; where it is vulnerable and therefore, easy to change; conversely, where it is hard and difficult to change; how and why the targeted respond to the bad behaviors, and how and why they do not.
  • This means as change leader going into the belly of the beast and using all the skills of the anthropologist to not only observe and interpret, but become part of the native community. It means understanding the emotional architecture of an organization—what holds it together, and what can tear it apart. You cannot change meaningfully what you do not understand deeply.
  • The second thing I had to come to terms with is that you cannot change something or presume to change somebody else unless you come to terms with yourself. I am part of the history, the politics, the emotions, and the people I wish to see change. I am inextricably part of the community and its memory of a painful and violent past. I come to the change project with a sense of my own vulnerability—in this case, as a victim of apartheid—and t h e r e f o r e , with a consciousness that I have to deal with personal anguish, bitterness, and loss if I am to find it possible to lead in ways that keep reconciliation and social justice in close conversation with each other.
  • The third thing I found useful in change is to know your purpose and stand in it. Being clear about what needs to be done is crucial. Here the distinction between authoritative leadership and authoritarian leadership is a useful one. Having listened to both sides of the story of the past traumas or present tragedies, the role of the leader is to act firmly yet compassionately in moving the organization towards a higher goal (e.g. the integration of residences, classrooms, and other campus spaces that were once divided by race).
  • Once understanding is achieved, action is crucial. A focused view of what needs to happen does not mean, of course, that midstream corrections do not happen. Understanding is never complete and human reactions are not always predictable. Without losing sight of the principled commitment, adapting the strategy or slowing down the momentum might be necessary from time to time. But know what it is you wish to achieve, and persuade your students and your colleagues to move in the same direction.
  • This is more art than science, and requires a leader sensitive to the emotions that change provokes, and knowing when to push hard and when to go slow, when to listen for longer, and when to push on towards the goal.


What do you see as one of or the most pressing issue related to educational change today?

  • The most pressing issue is the quality and depth of educational leadership in schools and universities today.
  • Change does not happen in a vacuum; it requires leadership.
  • But the leadership required is different from the past. The strong-man theory of leadership has now been completely discounted. Technicist visions of leadership —the tool-box approach to change—is not enough.
  • Top-down or bottom-up approaches to leadership are false choices; we need both.
  • What is needed in a floundering world—whether in corporate, ecclesiastical, familial, or educational contexts—is ethical, compassionate, emotional, and spiritual (not religious) leadership that recognizes the complexity of the human condition even as the higher purposes of learning, and teaching, are pursued.
  •  The cold calculus of learner achievement tests and new managerialisms fail to address the heart of education.
  •  Children are not cognitive machines and teachers are not mindless mechanics.
  • Change that endures goes much deeper that routine tests, more paperwork, and external demands to account.
  • In many parts of the world there are no formal leadership development programs for principals or professors.
  •  People still stumble into leadership too often without the necessary preparation.
  • But formal training is one thing; observing leadership through powerful role models in the practice of leadership is a completely different thing.
  • What is desperately needed is both new knowledge on leadership and multiple opportunities for apprenticeships in leadership.
  •  Schools and universities that identify potential leaders from among the learning population and provide structured opportunities for the nurturing of such leadership already make an important contribution towards next generation leadership of the kind described in these reflections.

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