11/21/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Country Ranked Second Worst in the World at Teaching Math, Makes Math Compulsory

As of the 2011 census, children in South Africa numbered 18.5 million. The majority of those children are either in public education or have yet to start school. Their prospects -- set against the backdrop of a failing education system and crushing unemployment -- are bleak. Their ability to squeeze the most advantage out of the system is hampered by the lack of true choice offered in school, where four subjects are determined by the government: home language, first additional language, life orientation and mathematics/math literacy.

This year the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of South Africa's math and science education second last in the world. Private research from the Center for Development and Enterprise found that the majority of grade six teachers in South Africa cannot answer a math question that their pupils ought to be able to answer. By grade nine, learners are already two years behind the global benchmark. Effectively this means that everyone in a state school is being forced to study a subject that South Africa is absolutely ill-equipped to teach them.

And the evidence is there: The majority of learners actually take math literacy -- not math, and the majority of learners who took pure mathematics last year failed their final exams. Let me just state that again: the majority of learners who took pure mathematics in grade 12 last year failed their exams. They went to school for 12 years and came out unable to achieve a 30 percent pass mark in a compulsory subject.

What about life orientation? Should it be compulsory? What does its syllabus of "career options" and "lifestyle choices" really offer a prospective employer? The same is true of an additional language. If a learner already has one language teaching them how to read, write a formal letter and an essay, do they need another unless pursuing a career that requires it?

The saddest part about the whole system is that the worst results are found at the poorest schools; the no-fee schools serving the poorest communities. The more poor a community, the less able it is to absorb a high school dropout or a high school graduate who cannot find a job. Now, within the context of South Africa, how would you want to equip yourself? I invite you to put yourself in the shoes of the average grade nine learner in an under-resourced township school, making this decision. How can you get the most out of the broken system, maximizing your chances of future success?

There are a few scenarios:

You're really bad at something.
You should have the choice to avoid it. This is especially true for math and science if you know you go to a school with no lab and terrible teachers. If you're bad at something in grade nine and have bad odds at improving it, you shouldn't be forced to take a subject that may result in an F on your Senior Certificate. You're also less likely to join the ranks of the 500,000 odd dropouts your generation will produce if you can avoid disengaging because of constant failure.

You're really good at something.
You should have the choice to maximize what you're good at. Good at languages? You should get the chance to take three or even four. Speaking English, Afrikaans, Zulu and French, with tourism as fifth subject and hospitality studies as a sixth makes sense. Because you've practiced more, you're more likely to do well in your tertiary training or studies. And because you've chosen your strongest ability, you'll have more impressive results to take into the job market.

You don't know what you want to do.
A lot of people don't know what they want to do after school. Many who can, study math and science to keep their options open for university. Those in this situation who are also doing badly in math and science should be able to pick the five or six subjects that will boost their chances relative to their realistic options. If you're looking at studying a short course or one year course because you know it's all you can afford, then keeping your options open for university and risking doing badly, makes no sense.

You do know what you want to do.
Many learners have specific objectives. For example, you may want to start your own business. This may mean you still take two languages and math but then choose business studies, consumer studies and computer literacy. In a scenario like this, life orientation has little benefit to offer, whereas the other subject choices directly add practical value. Even if you don't get the kind of high marks that come from picking easier subjects, you are still more equipped to achieve your goals.

What these scenarios are meant to illustrate is how choice allows those who have the most to worry about after school, the ability to get maximum utility from their schooling. The scenarios treat compulsory subjects as an opportunity cost. It must also be said that by reducing the numbers of learners taking math, math literacy, a second language or life orientation, the quality of education for learners who continue to choose those subjects should theoretically be higher. After all, a system designed for where the average learner in it is barely passing is very different to one where the average learner chose to be there and can cope with the matter.

The idea here is to swap government's straw man of quantity (the real numbers of learners matriculating with a subject at 30 percent or higher) for quality (the percentage of learners doing well enough to realistically get further training or a job). The ideal, of course, is to achieve both quantity and quality but we still have to fix the system so that it can deliver both. Until such a time as the education system can offer all its learners a fair chance of success, it has no right to force them into paths of failure.