Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.3, 226-235
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.23031
Factors Affecting South African District Officials’ Capacity to
Provide Effective Teacher Support
Bongani D. Bantwini1, Nolutho Diko2
1Department of Elementary & Early Childhood, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, USA;
2Human Sciences Research Council, ESD, Pretoria, South Africa.
Received March 19th, 2011; revised April 13th, 2011; accepted May 2nd, 2011.
The role of district o f f icials as education reform agents is unden i able. Through perspectives analyses, we exp l o r e
factors that affected the capacity of eight South African districts to provide effective teacher support during the
last implementation of natural science reforms. We argue that district officials’ capability and reality issues are
some of the factors that are likely to determine the success or failure of reforms. Further, they have the gravity to
nullify the efforts to improve school performances. Lastly, we propose ways to bridge the gap between theory
and practice and strategies t o promote partnership between district officials and schools.
Keywords: School Districts, District Officials, Curriculum Spec ialists, Curriculum Reforms, Natural Science,
Science Education, South Africa
The significance of local school districts in mediating be-
tween schools and the government is undeniable (Abele, Iver,
& Farley, 2003; Anderson, 2003; Hightower, Knapp, Marsh, &
McLaughlin, 2001; Spillane, 2000, 2002). Their influential role,
which includes ensuring quality teaching and learning, effective
assessment, increased learner performance, and achievement, to
mention but a few, is indispensable (Anderson, 2003; Iver,
Abele, & Elizabeth, 2003). As the literature shows, school dis-
tricts are key elements and authorized agents that oversee and
guide schools (Massell, 2000). They are the vital institutional
actors in educational reforms (Rorrer, Skrla, & Scheurich,
2008), and the major sources of capacity building for the
schools (Massell, 2000). These district functions and responsi-
bilities are true but also in the South African context. The South
African school districts are the intermediaries between the Na-
tional and Provincial Departments of Education and the local
schools, and their officials play a fundamental role of oversee-
ing the implementation of all new policies developed by the
National Department of Education and implemented by the nine
Provincial Departments of Education. Roberts (2001) describes
the primary function of school districts in South Africa as two-
fold: to support the delivery of curriculum in schools and to
monitor and enhance the quality of learning experiences offered
to learners. He argues that district offices have a particular role
to play in working closely with local schools and ensuring that
local educational needs are met. As he explains, in supporting
the primary function of the district, there are five possible areas
of operation: policy implementation; leading and managing
change; creating an enabling environment for schools to operate
effectively; intervening in failing schools; and offering admin-
istrative and professional services to schools and teachers. Fur-
thermore, Roberts believes that these different areas of opera-
tion should be aligned to support the district’s primary purposes,
teaching and learning.
Despite the critical role played by school districts, South Af-
rican school improvement literature continues to show that
districts and their officials hardly receive sufficient attention on
their role in the curriculum reform process (Chinsamy, 2002),
creating deficiencies in our comprehension of the struggles
confronting the new policy implementation. The neglect of the
district offices and their officials, as Murphy and Hallinger
(2001) and Massell (2000) caution, can be done at the peril of
the new curriculum and policy reform implementation at the
contextual level. Thus, research on districts and their officials
will provide a crucial puzzle piece necessary to understand and
achieve success in every new reform policy. Spillane (2000)
argues that the successful implementation of instructional re-
forms depends in some measure on the broader policy envi-
ronment in which classrooms are nested, a complete terri tory of
the school district. In South Africa, as Chinsamy (2002) con-
tends, the National and Provincial Department of Education
have successfully formulated empowering educational policies
but their implementation has been disappointing. The gap be-
tween policy formulation and implementation has been re-
garded as the primary reason for the failure of transformation in
education (Chinsamy, 2002; Jansen, 2002). Chinsamy high-
lights that between the Provincial Department of Education and
the school stands the district office, where he believes the an-
swers seem to be pointing.
Through interview analyses, this paper explores the perspec-
tives of intermediate phase (grades 4 - 6) district officials1 from
the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa regarding their chal-
lenges with the Natural Science2 reform implementation. This
curriculum reform, commonly known as the Revised National
Curriculum Statement (RNCS), was launched in 2002, resulting
from recommendations made by a team that reviewed and re-
1This paper uses “district officials” to refer to curriculum specialists in
natural science; science, mathematics, and technology education district
coordinators; and natura l science distr i ct subject advisors.
2Natural Science is science education at the primary level.
vised the previous curriculum, Curriculum 2005 (DoE, 2002).
This paper therefore investigates the following: 1) factors that
hinder or facilitate district officials’ capacity to provide effec-
tive support to natural science teachers in their implementation
of the new curriculum in classrooms and 2) their perspectives
regarding changing the status quo of reform implementation in
classrooms. South African district officials’ perspectives are
seldom heard voices, yet constitute nuggets of knowledge that
play a critical role in the implementation of new curriculum
policies. They constitute comprehension of the intricacies in-
herent in the reform implementation process. Thus, understand-
ing officials’ perspectives is essential because they are the key
support for teachers at the local level, responsible for ensuring
that they comprehend the new policies by providing them with
a vision, interpretation, focus, policy coordination, and above
all, with ensuring the desired success (Corcoran, Fuhrman, &
Belcher, 2001). Moreover, Rorrer, Skrla, and Scheurich (2008)
reveal that the previous line of research has been informative;
however, it leaves us without an understanding of the complex-
ity intrinsic in district-level, systemic reform.
In discussing these perspectives, this paper will begin by
presenting a brief review of the international literature on the
school districts’ role and their officials, as well as the critique
leveled against them. This will be followed by a synopsis of
South African school districts and their officials, intended to
situate the reader in the context of the reported study. Next, we
describe the study methodology, contextual background, and
data analysis. This will be followed by presentation of the re-
search findings, which will focus on three key themes: district
officials’ workload versus what is feasible for them, school
reality issues, and district officials’ perspectives on changing
the status quo in the implementation of curriculum reforms. The
next section will discuss these findings, with an emphasis on
the need for the South African National Department of Educa-
tion to heed such challenges as they have the gravity to nullify
the efforts to improve teaching and learning in schools and
negatively impact on teacher and student performances. Then
we draw conclusions that propose ways to bridge the gap be-
tween theory and practice and strategies to promote effective
partnerships between district officials and schools.
International Literature on the School District
Role and Its Officials
The literature indicates the existence of various views re-
garding the role that school districts and their officials play
(Anderson, 2003; Hightower, Knapp, Marsh, & McLaughlin,
2001; Rorrer, Skrla, & Scheurich, 2008; Spillane, 2000, 2002).
These views include those that endorse the critical role played
by the district and its officials; those that raises some concerns
about districts; and those that speaks to the neglect in the
studying of districts a s essential players in the systemic reforms.
Hightower, Knapp, Marsh, and McLaughlin (2001) highlight
that the different conceptions of what constitutes a school dis-
trict include the idea that districts are geographic entities repre-
senting a designated area and a set of schools contained within
these boundaries. These authors view districts as legal entities
required by state law to provide education to all students re-
gardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, and
disability within the attendance boundaries. Other researchers
view districts as implementers of state policies (Marsh, 2001);
as professional learning laboratories (Stein & D’Amico, 2001);
teacher educators for beginning teachers as they struggle with
the daily decisions about what and how to teach (Grossman,
Thompson, & Valencia, 2001); and as boundary spanners in the
context of collaborative education policy implementation (Honig,
2006). In addition, they also affect school capacity by initiating
a variety of other policies that shape the way professional de-
velopment is conducted (Youngs, 2001). Collective ly, these sc h-
olars strongly emphasize the significance and need for school
districts and their officials in the accomplishment of the rollout
of new reforms or mandates. Hightower et al. (2001) argue that
districts are responsible for the development and enforcement
of functions, including attendance, transportation, educational
goals, instructional guidance, personnel, operation, and main-
tenance of facilities, as well as teacher professional develop-
ment. Additionally, the district officials play an essential role in
ensuring the success of new mandates and reforms filtered by
the government as they strongly influence the strategic choices
that schools make to improve teaching and learning (Massell,
2000). Rorrer, Skrla, and Scheurich (2008) further view a dis-
trict, which comprises vital institutional actors, as an organized
collective that is bound by a web of interrelated and interde-
pendent roles, responsibilities, and relationships that facilitate
systemic reforms.
Despite the consensus on the vital role played by districts
and their officials, some literature shows that advocates against
the local school districts also exist (Abele, Iver, & Farley, 2003;
Tyack, 2002). Tyack argues that in the United States of Amer-
ica these advocates, federal activities, hardly see the need for
local school districts. Citing Myron Lieberman (1960), Tyack
note that these advocate perceive local districts as obstacles to
reform and the main source of “the dull parochialism and at-
tenuated totalitarianism” of American schooling. These advo-
cates also highlight that the local school boards were excluded
in most of the critical decision making and policy signing
processes of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
(ESEA) enacted in 1965 in the US, which serves as a revelation
of how highly valued the local districts (Tyack, 2002). Tyack
states that as part of excluding local districts, policy analysts
recently focused attention on every level of government but
local districts; as they view them as ineffective and obsolete
and deserving to be abolished. According to Corcoran, Fuhr-
man, and Belcher (2001), some critics have even argued that
districts are inherently incapable of stimulating and sustaining
meaningful reforms in teaching and learning because of their
political and bureaucratic character. Additionally, some re-
formers view the districts as problems and identify a criticism
that districts play no significant role as they are inconsistent
with sound policy and are just ineffective bureaucratic institu-
tions (Marsh, 2001). To other critics, as Marsh (2001) indicates,
districts have become overly politicized and unresponsive to the
public, teachers, and students. A further observation about dis-
tricts and their officials was made by Spillane (2000), who
found that district officials sometimes contribute to the non
implementation of new reforms by the teachers, especially
when they do not fully comprehend the vision of the reforms.
Though Spillane values and supports local school districts, he
asserts that district official’s interpretation of the reforms mes-
sage is an important explanatory variable in accounting for
Adding to these views about school districts are Rorrer, Skrla,
and Scheurich (2008), who in their review of Smith and
O’Day’s (1991) seminal work on systemic school reform point
to the neglect of the role of local school districts in reform.
These authors argue that the role of school districts was un-
deremphasized in all three of these reform waves (see Smith
and O’Day’s, 1991); rather, the research emphasis has been
directed towards schools, teachers, states, and other elements
involved in the reform process. Rorrer, Skrla, and Scheurich
argue that over the past 20 years research studies on districts
have been relatively fewer in number and discontinuous com-
pared to research on schools as the center of reform. Further-
more, they argue that the neglect by many researchers, practi-
tioners, and policy makers alike to acknowledge the nested
nature of schools within districts and the district’s instrumental
role in systemic re form appears remarkable.
Despite the criticism and constriction and neglect of local
district control, Tyack (2002) argues that the public still trusts
local officials more than state and federal government officials
or representatives. Increasing numbers of leaders are insisting
that public education be deregulated and that local districts
recapture more power to make decisions about schooling in
their communities. Spillane and Thompson (1997) argue that
the notion of local capacity needs to be rethought in light of the
extraordinary demands for teaching imposed on teachers and
others by the current wave of reform in science, mathematics,
and other subjects. These authors argue that district capacity to
support ambitious reforms consists of human capital, which
involves knowledge, skills, and dispositions of leaders within
the district; social capital, which involves social links within
and outside the district, together with norms and trust to support
open communication; and financial resources, which include
allocation of staffing, time, and materials. This brief literature
review clearly shows that districts and their officials are crucial
stakeholders in the education enterprise. Schools and teachers
can do as much but requires districts officials for more policy
direction and various supports. Thus, investigating district offi-
cials’ perspectives about curriculum reform issues merits the
efforts, since they are expected to be conversant with issues that
facilitate or hinder successful implementation of curriculum
reform at the local level. Understanding such issues will assist
in bridging the existing gap between theory and practice and
therefore promote coherent (new) reform implementation.
Synopsis of South African School Districts
Although a great deal of literature on school dist ricts and their
officials is commonly found in ot her countries, So uth A fr ic a s ti ll
has a knowledge deficiency in that area (Chinsamy, 2002; Nar-
see, 2006). There is knowledge deficiency regarding how dis-
trict officials’ collaborate as well as the factors that hinder their
capacity to provide effective support to schools and teachers.
Some scholars only hint on the challenges that district officials
are confronted with in the process of supporting teachers with-
out providing deep analysis of the situation (Bantwini, 2010;
Bantwini & King-McKenzie, 2011). The schools’ district role
in South Africa has been described as largely neglected (Chin-
samy, 2002; Narsee, 2006), and requires more attention. Rob-
erts (2001) highlights that the position of South African school
districts in the educational hierarchy means that they have great
potential to be a vehicle for medium- to large-scale educational
reform. He argues that the potential of the district to be the
fulcrum around which educational change and improvement
pivot lies in the district’s ability to fulfill its core function,
which is to support the delivery of the curriculum and to ensure
that all learners are afforde d good-quality learning opportuni-
ties—the quality of which is evidenced by learner achieve-
Despite the limitation of knowledge deficiency, districts and
their officials, as in other countries, play an essential role in
ensuring the implementation of the stream of education policies
promulgated especially during the post-apartheid era (Jansen,
2004). Worth mentioning is that the post-apartheid era is
marked by the development and rollouts of new policies in-
tended to redress the past injustices committed by the apartheid
regime. These efforts are also characterized by the re-definition
of certain departments and the roles of their officials. Roberts
(2001) highlights that since 1994 there has been considerable
debate on the form and functions of district offices and in some
provinces these debates have led to the large-scale reorganiza-
tion of Provincial Departments of Education and their support-
ing bureaucracies at the Provincial, Regional, and District lev-
Currently, at the apex of the South African education struc-
ture is the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the De-
partment of Higher Education and Training (DHET), both re-
sulting from the recent split of the then National Department of
Education, which occurred in 2009. The Department of Basic
Education, which this paper focuses on, is responsible for the
primary and secondary education including adult basic educa-
tion and training, whereas the Department of Higher Education
and Training (DHET) is responsible for tertiary education and
technical and vocational training (for more details see South
Africa Department of Education). The vision of the DBE is to
ensure that all South African people have access to lifelong
education and training opportunities that will contribute to-
wards improving the quality of life and building a peaceful,
prosperous and democratic society. The critical role of DBE is
to develop education policies that are later filtered to schools
through the Provincial Departments of Education (SASA, 1996)
and providing a broad management framework for support
(DoE, 2005). Generally, it is responsible for matters that cannot
be regulated effectively by provincial legislation, and also for
matters that need to be coordinated in terms of norms and stan-
dards at a national level (DoE, 1999). The National Department
provides active assistance to provincial departments in streng-
thening their ad ministrative and professional capacity.
South Africa is made of nine Provinces, with each compris-
ing a Provincial Department of Education. These provincial
departments are intended to decentralize education in the coun-
try, thus promoting efficiency in the management of all educa-
tional activities and issues. Among their many roles, these de-
partments are tasked to implement new policies and collaborate
with the various school districts within their provinces. They
are tasked to coordinate the implementation of a national fr ame-
work of support, in relation to provincial needs (2005).
Each Province consists of a number of school districts that
vary depending on the size of the province and population. The
school districts are the governing institutions, the “eyes and
ears” of the government, and are led by the District Director.
Depending on the size of the district, the number of schools per
district also varies.
Though South African school districts play a significant role
in many way s, they still la ck a legislati ve framework that spell s
out their powers and functions. In Roberts (2001) observations,
there has been a historical neglect of the subsystems level of the
education system and the disappointing results of previous
school improvement approaches. The South African Depart-
ment of Education (2005) also acknowledges that in some dis-
tricts, there has been no meaningful support for some time. This
is particularly true in rural and historically disadvantaged areas.
They also note that even if support is available, it is often frag-
mented and uncoordinated and to unite it into cohesive practice
that works is the challenge (DoE, 2005). The literature indicates
that the persistent calls for a legislated district framework over
the past decades have not yet borne fruit (Narsee, 2006). The
landscape of and the role played by school districts and their
officials, their capacity to work with schools and more, is a
relatively unexplored area in the South African context, and
hence this study.
Study Context
The reported qualitative study was conducted in eight school
districts in the Eastern Cape Province (EC), South Africa. The
Province consists of 23 school districts that are grouped into
three clusters: clusters A, B, and C. Each cluster is led by a
Chief Director, and is composed of a varying number of dis-
tricts that are led by District Directors. The District Directors
subsequently lead teams of Curriculum Specialists for various
subject/learning areas. In some of the Provinces, districts are
the smallest units within the education system while in others
the smallest unit is a circuit. In the case of the EC, the smallest
unit is a circuit and is led by a Circuit Manager. Districts or
circuits have varying number of schools (primary and secon-
dary schools). The school districts’ sampling was purposive,
and was based on their geographic positioning, which ensured
that most parts of the province were covered. Also, the will-
ingness of the District Directors to undertake the study in their
districts served as another motivating criterion.
Research Design
Initially, the reported study focused on eight Natural Scienc e
(NS) district officials, however, only six were successfully
formally interviewed. The other two district officials had casual
discussions with the researcher and were not formal inter-
viewed, though they had consented on it. This was due to time
constraints resulting from their busy schedules during the data
collection period. The formally interviewed officials, four males
and two females, all over forty years of age with varied teach-
ing experiences, were working closely with the Natural Science
teachers at the intermediate phase (grades 4 - 6). Their respon-
sibilities involved providing teachers with curriculum policies
from the National Department of Education; interpreting the
policies in comprehensible way to the teachers; supporting
teachers with the content knowledge; conducting workshops as
part of teacher professional development; monitoring the im-
plementation of the new curriculum policies in schools; support
and monitor the functionality of curriculum structures, to men-
tion but a few.
District officials were interviewed using semi-structured in-
terviews that lasted between 60 - 90 minutes. According to
Hargreaves (2005), interviews offer an approach that gives
access to personal experiences, some flexibility in responding
to the interview topics, and probing of people’s account of
these, and an initial opportunity to identify patterns of similar-
ity and experiences. Some of the interviews were tape recorded
with participant’s permission, while in other cases interview
notes were taken. The recorded interviews were later tran-
scribed verbatim. The data coding and analysis followed an
iterative process, as recommended by Miles and Huberman
(1994). Miles and Huberman describe various steps that include
reading and affixing codes to the transcript notes while noting
reflections or other remarks in the margins; sorting and sifting
through these materials to identify similar phrases, relationships
between variables, patterns, themes, distinct differences be-
tween subgroups and common sequences; isolating these pat-
terns and processes, commonalities and differences; while
gradually elaborating a small set of generalizations that cover
the consistencies and; confronting those generalizations with a
formalized body of knowledge in the form of constructs (p. 9).
During this process, the research questions were used to inform
the emerging the mes and issues which are discussed below.
To enrich our data, four schools from each of the eight dis-
tricts, totalling 32, were also sampled with the assistance of
district officials, as they were more familiar with the context
than the researchers. Among the selection criterion used was
the requirement that the sampled schools should be in prox-
imity with each other in order to ease the movement from one
school to the other. From each district the targeted schools were
public schools comprising farm3 schools, township4, rural5, and
urban6 schools. The other criterion was that each school should
comprise grades 4 - 6 natural science classes.
To triangulate the district officials’ information, about 108
natural science teachers were asked to complete a questionnaire,
of which 55 (51%) were returned completed. The question-
naires focused on the teachers’ demographic details and quali-
fications, which gave us an idea of who the district officials
were working with. It also focused on the teacher learning, new
curriculum reform, classroom implementation and their district
professional development. All the completed questionnaires
were imported into the Statistical Package for the Social Sci-
ences (SPSS) and frequency distributions was conducted. In
this paper the data from the questionnaires will not receive
much attention as it does in another article.
Additionally, eleven teachers (8 females and 3 males) were
interviewed using a semi structured interviews to further learn
about the new curriculum reforms in South Africa, the class-
room implementation process and whether or not they were
receiving the desired support from their district officials. The
interviewed teachers were purposively sampled based on their
teaching experiences, number of years in the same district, their
willingness to be interviewed, to mention but few. These inter-
3Farms school are schools situated in farms and accommodate mostly chil-
dren of the farm workers.
4Township schools, on the other hand, are public schools located in the
5Rural schools a re public schools locate d in the rural areas.
6And urban schools are public schools in the urban areas.
views were audio recorded with their permission and later tran-
scribed verbatim. The data coding and analysis followed the
iterative procedure as suggested by Miles and Huberman (1994).
Reference to these interviews will occasionally be made to
present clarit y on c ertain issues , wh enever neces ary (s ee Tab le 1).
Ethical Issues
The permission to conduct the study was requested from and
granted by the Eastern Cape Department of Education Superin-
tendent, as per their research policy requirement or procedure.
Throughout the paper, pseudonyms are used to protect the iden-
tity of the school districts, the district personnel, and the teach-
ers. In the following, we discuss the the matic issues that emerged
from the data analysis.
Factors Affecting District Officials’ Capacity to
Provide Effective School Support
Capability versus Feasibility at the Gro und Level
The district offi cials ci ted th eir w orkload in relat ion to w hat is
feasible to accomplish at the district level as a critical challenge
in most districts, impacting their capacity to provide effective
support to their teachers. Partly contributing to this factor was
the large number of schools, ranging from 200 to 500, that offi-
cials were responsible to provide with profession al dev elopment
on new curriculum reforms; the need to monitor the reform
implementation process; and the effort to provide ongoing
school-based support, just to mention a few. Justice and success
in providing a better service to all their NS teachers was said to
be a utopian dream. The common belief was that the district
officials’ work was characterized by difficulties as they were
thinly stretched in their work. Further aggravating the situation
was the fact that some officials were also working with teachers
of two different phase levels, the intermediate phase (grades 4 -
6) and the senior phase (grades 7 - 9), making it difficult to
accomplish their goals. Consequently, some schools and teach-
ers had never been visited to discuss and resolve some of the
challenges they were confronted with. Ironically, the South
Africa Department of Education’s (2005) continue to argue that
educators and their institutions need constantly to learn and
grow, and must have ongoing support to achieve this. Therefore,
their function is to provide the necessary infra-structural and
human resource support for success through the district-based
support team.
District officials complained about their job descriptions and
the related organogram (management structure), viewing them
as also causing a handicap in the nature of support they were
offering teache r s:
“I think the other thing that handicaps the kind of support
that we give to schools is the structure of the organogram itself.
For example I find it funny that we could stretch the intermedi-
ate phase and senior phase. There is a set of about six different
grades (grades 4 - 9) and with one person who is to give suppor t
to these teachers; that stretch from intermediate phase to senior
phase! You know, there is no one who has that broad, that kind
of expertise to give a very genuine… (Mr. Zama-Zama, 2008).”
Combining the intermediate and senior phase level under the
leadership of one district official was perceived as a serious
challenge. District officials cited that if the individual was not
well or away for one reason or another, that meant that both
phase levels would suffer, since no one else was there to assist
them. This concern was raised in light of the historical chal-
lenges that the province was still grappling with, of teachers
with inadequate content knowledge, the weak culture of teach-
ing and learning in most schools, and more. As a solution to
this challenge, district officials believed that it would be ideal if
district officials were responsible for just one phase level. For
example, if there was a subject advisor responsible for the in-
termediate phase and another for the senior phase, a similar
case as in the Further Education and Training band (FET) in
their districts, schools would be better served.
“Instead, what they have done in the organogram is to ‘put a
lot of generals without foot soldiers’; for example, there could
be coordinators, there is a coordinator for the intermediate
phase and that coordinators has got no Subject Advisors. There
is one for senior phase and there is just one line of Subject Ad-
visors, therefore these have got two bosses. I mean if there are
in each and every area, there is one Subject Advisor for natural
science for intermediate and Senior phase, there is a boss for
senior and there is a boss for intermediate phase, so this poor
guy has to report in two bosses (ha ha ha ha, laughing). You
have two bosses. So you work very bad because you become
very busy like a lunatic and it’s difficult, making no sense. Also,
appointing a general before there are even foot soldiers, there is
a general with no army what does, (ha ha ha, laughing), it does
not make no sense. (Mr. Zama-Zama).”
The workload issue was juxtaposed with the insufficient re-
sources, particularly in the form of policy documents, for all the
teachers. As one of their tasks, dis trict officials are responsible to
provide teachers in their learning area with the relevant and
current policy documents. They have to ensure that all the
teachers are clear about the policies and are also in possession of
those documents as their teaching references. Nevertheless, six
years later after the launch of the Revised National Curriculum
Statement, there were still natural science teachers who did not
possess a copy of a policy document. Explaining the challenges
Table 1.
Research design summa ry.
Participants Sampling Method # of Participants Gender Instruments
District Officials Convenienc e sampling 8 5 males & 3 Fe males Formal & I n fo r mal inter views
Teachers Purposeful Sampling 11 3 Males & 8 Females Formal inte r vi ews
Teachers Purposeful Sampling
Target 108 teachers & 55 (51%)
Completed the Questionnaires 5 Males & 50 Females
completed the Questionnaire Questionnaires
resulting from this lack, one district official said:
“If you are not reading, then you have to be dependent on the
information given to you in a forum or workshop. Therefore
you are unable and you are not assisting yourself in terms of
reinforcing that information by further reading. (Mr. Dock,
A person gradually shall have to, when coming across a
problem, consult a relevant policy document and read about it.
We cannot seat and read with them, unfortunately, so people
have got to learn to read. (Mr. Dock, 2008).”
The challenge of a policy document shortage resulted in most
teachers relying on district officials for information regarding
the new reforms. According to the district officials, their pro-
vincial office was to be blamed for this matter as they were
supposed to provide all the teachers with policy documents,
something that was not happening.
Despite the fact that most teachers relied on district officials
for most information, meetings between these groups for the
purpose of professional development or other activities also
seldom took place. The district officials were supposed to meet
with the teachers at least every semester, but that proved to be
difficult, given the large numbers of schools and teachers they
“If you could deal with rural schools and some of them if you
could ask if, who their subject advisor is, they will say, we
don’t know any person like that. There are schools in the dis-
trict who do not know that I am employed to support them.
They have never seen my face, let alone know my name (ha ha
ha, laughing) and yet my brief is to support those schools. (Mr.
Several teachers also confirmed the issue raised in the above
quote and said:
“In the case of Natural Science, who is responsible for it I
don’t know. We don’t even have the Natural Science work-
shops, the last time we had one I think it was in the nineties,
just to attend them. Right now I don’t want to lie; I don’t know
who is responsible for Natural Science. (Mrs. Crak, Natural
Science teacher)
I don’t know about Natural Science, I have never been to a
workshop on it. If they had a workshop, then it means they did
not inform us. I have taught in this district since 1985 and have
never been to a Natural Science workshop. (Mrs. Duplesis,
Natural Science teacher).”
Responding to a question about how schools were imple-
menting the new reforms, one district official said:
“I don’t have a broader scope of the schools in my district,
but this year I managed to visit three schools out of the 466
because I work with grades 4 - 9. (Mr. King)”
The neglect of teachers at the primary school level for the sake
of grade 9, which is the exit level in the phase, was viewed as a
critical challenge. This was a challenge because teachers at the
primary school level needed additional support since they were
tasked with the d evelopment of a solid foundation in t he learning
of science at the lower levels of schooling. The district officials
argued that it is difficult to do justice to all the schools in the
district, let alone the phase, when you are thinly spread.
Reality Aspects of School s at District Level
Among the factors that were incapacitating di strict officials in
their mission to support schools were teachers who still did not
have a clear understanding of the new curriculum, an issue that
has received considerable attention in several studies including
one by Bantwini (2010). Expressing this concern about these
teachers, Mr. Dock said:
“If you are having a confident educator in class, then your
chances are very good that you are going to be imparting some
difference in your learners. But if teachers are still not yet sure,
then chances are great that you putting that educator to a situa-
tion that is frustrating five days a week. Then you are invariably
creating some destruction to your learners.”
Concurring with the above idea is Davis (2003) who con-
tends that without the necessary subject matter knowledge, it is
hard for teachers to learn strategies and techniques needed to
respond to students’ thinking about the subject in ways that
facilitate their learning. The district officials noted that during
workshops teachers would claim to understand the vision of the
policy, however, when they are faced with challenges in their
classroom practice, it was said nobody was there to assist them.
This was a challenge that retarded progress among teachers.
Despite the challenges, some officials were optimistic that
teachers were doing their best they could in relying on what
they learned from workshops. This handicap, as the officials
mentioned, has resulted in some teachers avoiding implement-
ing things they did not understand. They also perceived this as
the only option teachers had, to either try to do what is expected
of them as prescribed by the policies or else revert to their
comfort zone where they felt they don’t understand; not be-
cause they resisted the policy but because they could not ade-
quately interpret it. In Elmore and McLaughlin (1988) observa-
tion, teachers response to new proposals for change most often
are deeply rooted in the nature of their work and in the profes-
sional norms, standards and concerns that guide practice and
support professional learning. However, despite acknowledg-
ment of this challenge, officials felt that there was no time for
retraining and re-skilling teachers since there was not even
enough time to conduct ongoing professional development
workshops in their districts.
Teachers were also said to be struggling with assessment.
Apparently, they had a different perception about Outcomes
Based Education, in that students were supposed to do every-
thing without considering that it was still their responsibility as
facilitators to plan for everything that students should do. Some
teachers were said to be still planning for one learner, the aver-
age performing learner, instead of planning for three learners;
the best, average, and poor performing learner in their class-
rooms. Accompanying this challenge was the fact that some
teachers, when talking about grouping, would think that learn-
ing and teaching was actually occurring in their classrooms.
When asked what they were doing to help those teachers strug-
gling to implement the curriculum, the district officials admit-
ted that it is their responsibility to intervene and assist them to
resolve whatever issue a teacher might have. However, time
was their worst enemy, as well as a lack of resources to attend
to the struggling teachers. From the interviews’ analysis, it was
evident that most of these teachers were not receiving the due
attention. This certainly is against the literature that argues that
few teachers can move from a staff development program di-
rectly into the classroom and begin implementing a new pro-
gram or innovation with success (Guskey, 2002).
Also common in most districts were teachers who were
comfortable in teaching certain areas like biology or physics,
while not comfortable in teaching the other areas within the
Natural Science content. These teachers were cited as only
conducting demonstrations and also theorizing in their teaching
of natural science, defeating the purpose of developing students
who will be prob lem solve rs and criti cal think ers. Man y teachers
were viewed as lacking confidence in the teaching and learning
of science in general. The Department of Education was also
blamed for not providing them with the adequate teaching ma-
terial for natural science areas.
“Firstly, what I have observed with our teachers in the inter-
mediate phase le vel, it i s people who ar e not confident about the
subject matter, for many reasons. One of them being that be-
cause of job shortage, they found themselves having to grab
whatever job is giv en to th em or w hatever locatio n in the school .
Very few of them are doing science because it is in their blood,
they love it. Some another fraction, another portion of them, they
really love science but now they did not have good background.
Although they never been given that opportunity to be well
founded in the subject (Mr. Matilu, 2008).”
The other common issue from the districts was that most
natural science teachers were teaching science without love or
passion for the learning area. Teacher s lacked a d rive th at should
propel them to consult their district officials when encountering
implementation challenges in their classroom. Teachers were
viewed as not being willing to go that extra mile in their work.
For example, during workshops, teachers would take whatever
they were told without question. Several issues we re attributed to
these issues including the fact that the Department of Education
was not providing teachers with ad equate support material. Most
schools could not afford to purchase all the science equipment
that would ensure that effective teaching and learning were
taking place. As a result, district officials were not happy about
the status of science teaching and learning in their schools, as
some teachers lacked subject content knowledge, a basic re-
quirement for teaching science education.
“They (teachers ) are on the ground level, they are not doing
well at all. Take from what I said about their background, it
looks like others are just on ly sustaining life, they are driving the
course, they are driving the time so that from Thursday of the
month up to the end they receive their salaries and it’s over.
There is nothing else they can say about science. They are just
doing it because they are told, most of them. So because of that
they seem to be stagnan t, ther e is no p rogress; you can see it b est
in a workshop (Mr. Matilu).”
The level of teachers’ subject content knowledge was viewed
as a critical component in the teaching of science, also co rrelated
with the poor learner performance in science subjects. Until this
issue was properly addressed, the status quo in science was said
to be one of the ongoing challenges. Nonetheless, how this was
to be “addressed” was said to be not yet clear.
“You find educators of varying background in science and
therefore even if you introduce a very down to earth concept, it
will take more than it ought to if they were well founded in
natural science (Mr. Matilu).”
The lack of acco u ntabil it y p rev io usl y pres en t was viewe d as a
contributing factor and hindering district officials’ capacity to
effectively support the teachers. In schools, school principals
were said to be afra id of teach ers who were just doing ever ything
as they preferred. These teachers were said to be doing their
work for the sake of doing it, without the p assion and dedication
that should be expected.
“Take for, example, if you can visit one of the schoo ls without
informing the teachers about your visit. You will find that the
teacher is not there and you find that the principal cannot even
fully account for their absence. They just cover for the teachers
but if you check the paper work you will find that there is
nothing written (Mr. King).”
Aggravating the challenge was the lack of authority over the
teachers. Data analysis reveals that in other schools the head of
the subject department would be someone who is maybe a lan-
guage teacher, who hard ly knows an ything abou t scien ce. In th is
case the teachers would not be challenged about whatever they
were doing in the learning area.
Perspectives on Changing the Status Quo of
Curriculum Implementation
As a solution to their challenges, the district officials sug-
gested that the Eastern Cape Provin cial Department of Education
will have to make r adical changes in ever y leve l of th e educa tion
system in order to change the status quo. These radical changes
would have financial implications, which usually determine the
success of m any initiativ es. The key changes will need to include
a decrease in th e nu mber o f schools t hat e ach d istrict offic ial has
to support. For example, instead of supporting 20 0 - 500 schools,
each official should hav e 40 - 75 schools. This was viewed as an
ideal and reasonable number of schools to support as the offi-
cials will be able to assist several of the currently struggling
teachers. Consequently, that would improve even their working
relationship with the teachers and also improve their under-
standing and implementation of the new natural science cur-
riculum reforms. Such a move will also enable officials to visit
schools and have conversations with teachers that will lead to
resolving some of the issues and challenges teachers are cur-
rently experiencing.
The district officials also believed that if each phase level
could be assigned an official rather than having one official
overseeing two phase leve ls as was current ly the cas e, that would
provide them relief. Furthermore, they believed that district
officials should be deployed based on their experiences, educa-
tional qualifications and strengths. For example, if you have
intermediate phase level teaching experience, then you should be
in charge of that phas e level and not be asked to oversee, say, the
Further Education and Training level, which you hardly have
any experience with. In this way, all the district officials would
be comfortable to assist teachers using their previous experi-
ences and background knowledge; and in return, teachers are
likely to develop confidence and trust in you based about the
knowledge of your previous experiences.
The district officials believed that provision of adequate ma-
terial and r esources suc h as polic y document w as als o a potenti al
solution to some of the challenges they were confronted with.
They wished th at the Provin cial Department of Education would
stop providing policy document copies per schools but rather per
teachers since some schools had their grades levels in different
sites. This would ensure that each teacher has a copy and would
eliminate excuses even from those teachers who do not usually
read the material. Though district officials feel this way about
policy document, Bantwini (2009 ) found that some teachers who
possessed policy documents never read them; rather they left
them to gather dust on the shelves. Probing reason for not
reading the new curriculum documents, teachers cited lack of
time among the issues. In Elmore and McLaughlin (1988) ob-
servation, the requirement to learn new behaviors, especially
when they involve modification or replacement of an existing
routine, threaten a teacher who is already well-organized self-
concept and established level of accomplishment. These authors
argue that the external demands are largely ineffective in stimu-
lating teacher learning, thus motivation to learn new things
should also come from within.
Discussion and Conclusion
As Spillane and Thom pson (1997) argue, the factors that make
up a district’s capacity to support ambitious i nstructional reform
are highly intertwined and therefore the capacity to support
instructional reforms should best be understood as a complex
and interactive configuration. Spillane and Thompson contend
that growth in one component depends crucially on, and fre-
quently contributes to, growth in the others. That observation
points to the complexity of the education system and reforms
and the necessity for the synchronization of the various ele-
ments that eventually contribute towards student success, an
ultimate goal for every education. Chisholm and Leyendecker
(2008) cautions that while there is a need for different and bet-
ter learning outcomes in all sub-Saharan African educational
systems, the scope of change is frequently underestimated. The
underestimated scope of educational change is also depicted by
the findings of this study; the need for changes that appear to be
primarily on the curriculum policies with no correspondence on
the district support structure. Ironically, South Africa, as Jansen
(2004) contends, possesses great and phenomenal education
policies. However, he reminds us that policy is not practice and
argues that while an impressive architecture exists for democ-
ratic education, South Africa has a very long way to go in order
to make the ideals concrete and achievable within educational
institutions, a sentiment also highlighted by the findings in this
study. This paper concurs with Chisholm and Leyendecker
(2008), who argue that curriculum reforms probably work best
when curriculum developers acknowledge existing realities,
classroom cultures, and implementation requirements. In this
case these realities exist on both sides: the district office and the
schools. Obviously, that requires an understanding and sharing
the meaning of the educational change, providing for adapta-
tions to cultural circumstances, local context, and capacity build-
ing throughout the system. Furthermore, it means that policies
need to be flexible enough to fit particular school contexts and
needs (King, 2004).
From the findings, one of the critical issues facing school
districts is the deficit of human capacity, hindering and inca-
pacitating the few officials from effectively servicing schools
and the teachers. The lack of human capital has negative im-
pacts on the expected results, especially in the implementation
of the ongoing curriculum reforms in South Africa. Considering
the district officials’ and schools/teacher ratio, it would be un-
realistic to expect a profound amount of change in the current
teaching and learning in schools. The South African Depart-
ment of education has on several occasions mentioned that
there are deficiencies in the culture of teaching and learning in
their schools. Based on that observation, one would expect
drastic moves towards addressing that issue. You would expect
a drastic increase in the number of district officials, with nec-
essary skills to work with teachers at all levels; and you would
also expect provision of adequate resources for district officials
and the teachers in order to perform their various tasks. How-
ever, what is transpiring in the districts goes against the de-
partment of education (2005) policy that the key function of the
districts is to assist education institutions, including schools, to
identify and address barriers to learning and promote effective
teaching and learning. As they argue, this includes classroom
and organizational support, providing specialized learner and
educator support, as well as curricular and institutional devel-
opment and administrative support. How possible is this task
when there is lack of sufficient human power? This typically
points to policy development that does not correspond with
reality. It is imperative as Davis (2003) suggests that much
thought and effort needs to be given to how teachers learn to
teach; what teachers know; how their knowledge is acquired;
how it changes over time; and what processes bring about
change in individual teacher practices as well as deep and long
lasting change in science classroom. This is crucial if new re-
forms are intended to be worthwhile and not political symbols.
Several district officials complained about their organogram
as propelling their challenges. A similar observation was made
by Narsee (2006), who argues that the central dilemma for
education districts in South Africa is their structural conditions.
Narsee emphasizes that school districts operate at the intersec-
tion of dual, related dichotomies of support and pressure, cen-
tralization and decentralization. However, she believes that it is
only through conscious engagement with these dichotomies, as
well as by active, positive agency on district-school relation-
ships, will districts be able to straddle, if not resolve, the ten-
sions between the policy, support, and management roles ex-
pected of them. The research of Walberg and Fowler Jnr. (1987)
suggests that bigger districts yield lower achievements. This is
probably true as the findings reveal that it is difficult for offi-
cials to assist schools that are in dire need of help.
According to Anderson (2000), districts that believe that
quality of student learning is highly dependent on the quality of
instruction organize themselves and their resources to support
instructionally focused profe ssional learning for teac hers. S c ho o l s ,
as Fullan (1992) argues, cannot redesign themselves; districts
play an important function in establishing the conditions for
continuous and long-term improvements for schools as they
control and coordinate all the development projects imple-
mented in their schools. This paper argues that if the school
districts under discussion value student quality teaching and
learning, drastic changes will have to be effected. The com-
plexity in such changes is that they will also affect policies not
only at the local district level but higher up in the educational
hierarchy. Chinsamy (2002) concludes that “it is the district
office—the way it is comprised, its functions and roles, its
management and its vision and the way it operates, its limita-
tions and its possibilities—that is pivotal to successful school
improvement”. The undisputable critical function of school
districts cannot be overlooked anymore. Expressing their con-
cern, Chisholm and Leyendecker (2008) note that the local
cultural and contextual realities and capacities as much as im-
plementation requirements still appear to be overlooked. We
believe that the overlook on the current crisis confronted by the
district shortage of human capacity will be an ideal recipe for
an ongoing disaster. Resolving that crisis by filling the vacant
positions and correcting the district official teacher ratio will be
the first step in curbing some of the school reality challenges
slowing the reform implementation process.
This paper strongly suggests that more research focusing on
school districts and their mandates/roles should be undertaken.
This will help unearth all the issues requiring immediate atten-
tion in order to correct the schooling crisis that confronts South
Africa. This paper acknowledges that the data used here may
not be sufficient to generalize about the conditions of all the
districts in the country. Nonetheless, this study provides a win-
dow for viewing how other districts are surviving during this
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