EDUCATION standards have fallen, and by a lot – there is no question about it because objective tests unambiguously indicate this. We are sliding down both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the world.
The situation is very, very dire. Clear indications are that the better the educational standards are, the more a country progresses in every respect, including economically. We ignore changing the education system at our own peril.
First, some figures. An international comparative testing method called TIMSS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey, provides data every four years about maths and science for participating countries around the world. The last survey was in 2007 and involved 59 countries.
Here are three key conclusions from the study:
/> Malaysia’s ranking has dropped from 10 in 2003 to 26 in 2007 for maths, and from 20 to 28 for science. (The top five for maths were Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan in that order, and for science, Singapore, Taiwan, the United States, Japan, and South Korea.)
/> Malaysia’s performance deterioration is progressively moving towards the lower end of Asian regional peer countries.
Malaysia’s score declined 34 points in maths to 474, higher than the average score of 459. For science, it declined 39 points to 470, lower than the international average score of 473.
The gap with the leaders is widening while those lower down are closing the gap.
/> Malaysian students appear to be less able to apply their knowledge in complex problem solving scenarios (2%-3% of student sample) compared with the top-performing Asian countries (more than 40%).
These figures are alarming because it clearly indicates a drop in Malaysian educational standards.
The country is already losing competitive advantage in many areas, and this is showing in a sharp deterioration in living standards on a relative basis.
For instance, in the 70s, Malaysia had higher per capita income than Taiwan and South Korea, as well as persistent high scorers in education, but has since lost the lead and is way behind.
The three countries which have progressed substantially in terms of living standards in the last 20 years are Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, all of whom have among the highest educational performance.
A number of factors contributed to the deterioration in education standards, the main one being the drop in quality of teachers. For various reasons, including increasing the number of bumiputra teachers, entry qualifications for the teaching profession were reduced.
To enter teacher training, the minimum qualification is a C6 in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam in the subject that you propose to teach. That is the lowest credit that one can get in the subject.
Policy flip-flops and an incoherent national education policy are also major contributing factors.
The situation was perpetuated in local higher education institutions where standards for entry, the quality and standard of teaching, and passing grades were all lowered to produce increasing numbers of local graduates, a large proportion of whom are now unemployed and are unemployable.
The underlying problem in the education system is the undue haste in trying to bring about an equitable education system where both teachers and students in schools as well as universities reflect the national population, and even exceed them with respect to bumiputras to help rectify societal imbalances.
But it is flawed reasoning. Teaching standards have to be improved to ensure that everyone has a proper education.
Imbalances in teacher population should have been tolerated in favour of educating all students and giving them equal opportunities to progress. Poorer and weaker students could have been helped with special classes.
Furthermore, the education system is fragmented with at least four distinct systems – the national, Chinese, Tamil and religious schools, each with a different emphasis. They split people up and hinder interaction among the various races.
Education policies continue to flip and flop and now there is yet another move – six years after implementation – to review the teaching of science and maths in English.
There is a crying need for solutions in a number of key areas. Standards have to be improved. There has to be some unity of purpose to overcome the divisive effects of the different schools, guaranteed as they are by the Constitution. And the language issue must simply be put to rest once and for all.
First, teaching standards have to be improved. A five to ten year plan has to be put in place to improve teacher quality. That must help channel suitable candidates into teaching by a system of incentives, recognition, rewards and a long-term programme to upgrade the profile and status of the teaching profession.
The essence of the plan should be to stream some of the most able people into the teaching profession, and especially the primary schools. This is what has been done by countries which have been successful in raising the education bar such as Singapore, the US and South Korea.
The other thing in that plan is to take a good look at the syllabus and plan a more wholesome form of education that encourages people to process data and see beyond them – in other words, thinking skills.
As part of this plan, it will be necessary to focus on one very important group of people, many of whom have become legends in their own lives and whose names have been associated with good schools, no matter what their starting point.
They are the HMs — headmasters and headmistresses — who can do so much to transform schools.
The move will have to involve basically putting the HM in charge of the school, giving him all the necessary resources to get things working, setting deadlines, retraining if necessary, and holding him accountable for success or failure.
What needs to be done is a sure and firm decentralisation of the education system, devolving power to the school to do what it sees fit under set guidelines.
You might almost call the HM the school CEO, reporting to a board of directors. The HM should be given power to hire and fire and make localised decisions.
The problem of the different school systems should be handled through choice – widening it, that is.
I suspect that English is the de facto mother tongue for probably more people than we realise, and for a greater number of people it has become the primary language of use although they have another mother tongue.
Let those in national schools have the choice of being educated in English or Malay and let the education authorities provide the necessary resources. That way, anyone can choose to have his children educated in any of the four main languages used in the country.
The problem of using schools as a medium of unification is a tricky one but imaginative solutions such as visions schools, which group the schools of various media in close proximity, may help.
In closing, just to cite an example of how little heed we pay to education, although we have talked for decades about it, we still don’t have a single session for schools, and the number of students in a class still routinely run to 50 or more. These things need immediate attention and action.
Unless we are committed to the idea of using education to advance everyone’s well-being, instead of using it as a tool to advance one’s political standing, we are going to have serious difficulty putting education back on an improvement trajectory.
Right now, it certainly seems to have careened completely out of control. That is very dangerous. It must be brought back under control and handed over to competent technocrats – not politicians – to drive the necessary changes.
Barisan Nasional’s legacy – education standards moving towards lower end of Asian regional peer countries