Education blueprint falls short
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 21 Sep 2012
At last, some official confession of how bad things really are in our schools.
For over a decade we have been lamenting the dismal state of education.
At the same time, the BN government could never quite admit that the system simply, deeply stinks.
As recently as April, Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin chest-thumped that our education system is 14th best in the world, referring to a fragment of the 2011-12 World Competitiveness Survey based on the opinion of about 80 Malaysian executives.
His exaltation of dubious data and denial of our abject state made me wonder what his promised education overhaul plan would look like.
Turns out, it’s not bad. The consultants who wrote the Blueprint for Education Development, and the government that endorses it, offer no wholesale denial of problems; in fact, it contains considerable information and reasonable ideas.
The Blueprint reports results of international standardised tests, which offer a credible basis for comparing some academic achievements of school kids across countries.
It’s not pretty. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, Malaysia ranked 55th of 74 countries in reading, 57th in mathematics, and 52nd in science.
The Blueprint outlines other important issues: language proficiency, urban-rural and inter-state disparities, lack of ethnic integration, deficient infrastructure, especially in Sarawak and Sabah, parental and community participation, and school autonomy.
Alas, I also see partial denial and a persisting urge to sugarcoat and maintain a controlling framework instead of a liberating one. This stems from gross over-simplification of education “quality” and failure to grasp the vicious cycle of robotic education that we need to break free from.
So it’s not a great plan. But the depth of woes in our system demands a great response, starting with brutal honesty and courageous analysis.
The Blueprint acknowledges quality teaching to be the most necessary measure to get us out of the rut. Yet it evades a critical evaluation of the current quality of education, even indulges in a pseudo balancing act by claiming that “public perceptions of quality are mixed”.
We are referred to a few surveys. Notably, the credible ones, with cited source and sensible questions asked, find severe problems with the skills of graduates. Surveys by Jobstreet and Merdeka Centre solidly show that graduates fall far short.
How does the Blueprint conclude that perceptions are mixed? It mentions two nameless (or unnamable) surveys.
One “recent survey” found that 95 per cent of Year 6, Form 2 and Form 4 students agreed or strongly agreed that their education was “helping them develop the right set of life skills”.
The opinion of our young is vital, but can their sentiments on questions beyond their experience be placed on par with employers’ assessments of graduates? The Blueprint curiously does not weigh the contrasting views.
In another “public survey”, 55 per cent of respondents believe Malaysia’s education is compatible with developed countries, and 35 per cent think it is better.
Yes, opinions and sentiments are diverse, but you’d expect a national blueprint to exercise sounder judgment of the available evidence. To insert positive spins, then blithely claim that views are mixed, is sloppy and negligent.
All the more when there is ample demonstration of abysmal methods of instruction. The Blueprint casually mentions internal assessment of teaching effectiveness which found that 70 per cent of lessons test the ability to “recall facts” while only 15 per cent require synthesising information.
These bits of information should be greeted with emphasis and alarm. Instead, the very next paragraph – again! – waxes over how perceptions of good quality teaching also vary. Excuse me, but 70 percent of class time spent regurgitating is an appallingly bad statistic, if you bother thinking about it.
Obviously, quality education needs quality teachers, and selection into the profession and performance on the job matter a huge deal.
A proposal to only accept the top 30 per cent of graduates into teachers training is being trumpeted. No major harm in that, but absence of other explicit selection criteria diminishes the potential.
We admit that the current system tests memorising, not thinking, but we fully lean on test scores to decide who qualifies to be a teacher. How does this transform our education into one geared toward “high order” thinking? We need teachers who are curious, who love to keep learning and helping others learn.
One missing element is whether our teachers desire to teach. Ask the teachers.
National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng put it: “To be a teacher you must have the passion for teaching. This must go together with academic qualifications.”
Other vital qualities that ought to be part of the selection of teaching trainees are independent-mindedness, curiousity, thinking ability, and writing skills. Can these be assessed? If we resolve to, yes.
Most teachers are already in the system and will remain there for long careers, and thus will need to be guided and trained.
This will be very, very difficult – they have been assimilated into a conformist system. Much attention focuses on innovative teaching methods that lift under-performing schools in basics like language and mathematics.
Those are deservedly lauded, but to complete reinvent a rote-learning system toward one that encourages critical and creative thinking is a vastly greater challenge.
And there is no escaping the need for schools and teachers to have greater freedom and power to determine what and how they teach.
The Blueprint has some ideas here. But beneath the veneer of decentralisation and plans for school autonomy (after 2021), the proposed reforms allow creeping bureaucratization of other sorts. The top-down structure of education persists, only at a more local level.
If administration at the tertiary level is anything to go by, we may be looking at the growth of a new industry of performance auditing at the primary and secondary levels.
Such interventions can induce improvement, but suck the soul out of education if not tempered with space for educators to exercise their judgment and creativity.
The word “freedom” appears twice in the Blueprint, with regard to allowances for administrators and inspectors to conduct their duties with more discretionary powers.
One might think that, in pursuit of quality teaching, we would want to empower teachers and students – the people actually doing the teaching and learning. Not so much. The Blueprint only seeks to “empower” principals, state and district education officials.
Autonomy or empowerment of teachers? Not a word.
This Blueprint shirks full confrontation with our failings in education quality and continues to be control-minded.
It is still too much a child of authoritarian and paternalistic government to usher in the change we need.