Give reforms a chance

Datuk Parmjit Singh is the APIIT Education Group co-founder and CEO. He says the blueprint needs to be updated for currency to ensure that it addresses current and future global trends.

THE Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2022 results, which were recently released, revealed that performance of Malaysian students who participated in the assessment had seen a sharp drop compared to 2018. In fact, all three assessment domains — Mathematics, Reading and Science — saw the sharpest drop compared against neighbouring countries.

While the latest scores certainly do provide a rather sensational headline, it is important for us to resist the temptation to start condemning our entire educational system. Yes, the scores provide an indicator (a snapshot) of how a particular segment (the 15-year-old cohort) of our students had performed in 2022, but these scores alone cannot be used in isolation, without understanding the possible reasons for this drop and what might be needed to bring us back on track.

In fact, the latest PISA Report (published in two volumes comprising close to 1,000 highly informative pages) had taken pains to distill the outcomes of the assessment and the survey carried out with participating students to provide a very useful multi-dimensional context to the outcomes achieved by each country, beyond the scores attained.

It is fundamentally important to note that the PISA Report highlighted a record drop in all three dimensions across all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries that participated in the assessment. In fact, the aggregate scores globally were the lowest ever seen since 2000.

It is also very important to note that Malaysia had actually been showing sharp increases in the scores across all three dimensions right until the previous edition of the triennial assessment, which was conducted in 2018. We were clearly on the right track and a drop such that experienced in 2022 could perhaps be attributed to the highly disruptive effects of the pandemic and the way in which Malaysia had navigated this very difficult period.

We need to remember that while education in all countries were disrupted during the pandemic, Malaysia probably kept teachers and students away from school longer than our neighbours did, attributable to the multiple, prolonged lockdowns experienced even deep into 2022 — the year of the assessment.

Among the key findings of the report was countries whose educational systems showed greater resilience during the pandemic, and that brought students back to school earlier, tended to achieve higher scores in the assessment. Against this backdrop, the digital divide as well as access to digital resources and capability also badly affected the effectiveness of learning during this very difficult period.

At the same time, Malaysia uniquely experienced political instability the likes of which we had never experienced before, with multiple changes in governments and leadership between 2018 and 2022, resulting in little hope for much-needed continuity in the implementation of reform programmes.

Also unique to Malaysia was that we made a significant change in 2022 by permanently abolishing the PT3 examinations. Therefore, this cohort of 15 year-olds who participated in the PISA may not have been particularly in “examination preparation mode” that previous cohorts would have been in.

Given that this cohort of students would be appearing for their SPM or O-Levels in 2024 and 2025, it would be interesting to see how they perform in these pivotal examinations. It might be safe to predict that they may not be deficient as the PISA scores seem to suggest.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 is in its 12th year of implementation (not counting the pandemic years) and there will be the inevitable clamouring for a major overhaul as the next blueprint is formulated, based on the latest PISA scores. The strength of any blueprint lies in its execution and the extent to which it is allowed to run its course without major shifts in direction and without consistent, focused leadership to drive its reform agenda.

In this regard we need to give the blueprint a chance. There is no reason to abandon the 11 shifts already identified.

Instead, these shifts and the associated strategies should be retained but reviewed and updated for currency to ensure that they address current and future global trends.

Perhaps the most important updates should involve enhancing widespread access to digital resources as well as enabling regulated use of technology (particularly devices) in the classroom, as these have been pointed out as being a key difference observed in countries that recorded high PISA scores.

Another key difference is the degree of resilience shown by educational systems in high-scoring countries, which was seen to be a major weakness for Malaysia, based on the report.

Policymakers and stakeholders involved in reviewing and developing any education blueprint would do well to invest the time in conducting an in-depth analysis of the findings of the PISA Report to inform the formulation of future directions and strategies.

I end this op-ed on a bright note. It was heartening to read in the PISA Report that Malaysia ranks above average in terms of qualified teaching staff (on par with Singapore). This means we have a strong foundation and the key resources in place to achieve major improvements in the years to come — provided we give reforms the chance to work.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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