Facts about education reform

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 08 Jan 2020

SINCE the abrupt resignation of Dr Maszlee Malik as education minister, plenty has been said and written about the education system in Malaysia. Everyone seems to have a general idea on what is wrong with it and how to fix it. But do they?

If you were to conduct a Google search on education reform in Malaysia, you would come across numerous opinion pieces, some of which are shared widely, that supposedly represent the truth. Therein lies a fundamental problem with the discussion on Malaysia’s education reform – the lack of genuine, in-depth research employing verified methodologies by professionals. This is ironic because most of the opinion pieces and criticisms claim that our education system should be more “science-based”.

Take this common refrain: “Our university rankings are slipping”. This was uttered live on air by the chairman of a prominent education NGO (of parents) like it’s the truth. The facts: Malaysian universities have never been ranked higher than in the recent 2020 QS World University Rankings and there has never been more Malaysian universities listed in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings than the 2020 cohort. In short, by all “measurements”, our university rankings have improved over the years.

Then there’s the idea that teaching in English would help improve our students’ international ranking in Science and Mathematics. It may seem logical, but there is no evidence that competence increases if one switches to English as a medium of instruction from their mother tongue.

Take the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results as an example. Malaysia, unfortunately, is in the bottom half with scores below average across the board. This is a serious cause for concern but claiming that the medium of instruction is the primary reason for why we did so poorly may be misguided.

Out of the top 10 countries listed in the rankings, only one’s medium of instruction in school is not its official mother tongue – and that is Singapore (although many have argued that Singapore’s native language is actually English).

Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Korea, Japan and almost all the leading countries in terms of performance teach in their mother tongue. This is where facts must stand firm in the face of emotional narratives.

Any serious discussion on Malaysia’s education system must start with an understanding of what an “education system” is and its purpose.

For example, we make the common mistake of assuming that education system excludes private and international schools (whether pre-school, primary, secondary or tertiary). A comprehensive education policy must consider the impact of privatisation and its role in the deterioration or improvement of our system.

I would argue (and not state as fact) that the liberalisation of K-12 education, which allows the mushrooming of private schools, in the late 2000s has had a negative impact on our overall education system, although it may lead to better outcomes for those who attend them.

The “purpose” or “why” has to be established and agreed upon before we can put the correct measurement in place and see where we fall short. To keep things simple, I would argue that formal education exists to develop individuals to become a positive contributor to society, nation and the world. It should have features or characteristics that produce competent students for work, citizenship (as a member of society) and life in general in equal importance. It is up to the students (and their parents) to decide which is their priority, but a system must be belief-neutral to be effective.

Once this is established, we can then look at measurements and standards. The easiest to measure is competency. International scoring systems like Pisa and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and rankings like QS and Times Higher Education may have flaws but at least they are standardised. With the appropriate measurement in place, we can identify where we have fallen short.

The simple fact is that while Malaysia has not “regressed”, as many have claimed, we have not improved by much either, especially in K-12 education. And even in tertiary level, for the amount of resources we put in every year, we are still lagging behind many of our regional peers.

But stating the shortfall in competency is much easier than identifying the causes. Is it our syllabus? Is it the quality of our teachers? Is it the increasing focus on religion over secularism? These may all be true but research has shown that the biggest predictors of academic success, other than IQ level, are actually parents’ education and income level.

Referring to the Pisa 2018 ranking, there appears to be a positive correlation between income per capita and academic performance. The relationship between family income and educational outcome starts as early as pre-school and the gap between the less fortunate and the wealthy continues to increase from there.

Research in the United States, for example, show that the test score gap between affluent and underprivileged students has grown to more than 40% since the 1960s.

This is an important point to note in reforming our education system: How do we create a formal education system that addresses the economic imbalance and disparity within our vast and diverse communities?

Should boarding schools for underprivileged children be introduced and expanded at primary school level and to broader communities? Should underprivileged school children be provided with state-assisted tuition programmes? Or should we extend school hours to make it almost a full-day programme that allows parents to improve their economic situation by taking extra work, knowing that their children are cared for in a safe environment?

This is just taking one possible cause out of many. But identifying a core issue allows us to create a platform for solutions that deliver the greatest result.

Discussion on education reform should be grounded on research and facts. We do not want to go on an expensive exercise of “curriculum and syllabus review” when changing the syllabus may not yield the desired result.

An example of perhaps misguided focus is our shift to the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) format a few years back. One of the expectations under this model was that parents should teach the basics – reading, counting and etc. – and schools develop critical thinking skills via complicated and complex exercises.

But how do we expect parents to assist when they are busy trying to improve their economic conditions? What kind of home education are we expecting from parents who are poorly educated in the first place?

Our lack of discussion on pre-kindergarten and kindergarten education is also telling. While studies in the US have yielded mixed results in terms of test scores between those who attended quality pre-K programmes and those who didn’t, there is clear evidence of the long-term benefits among the former, like higher college attendance and graduation rates, improved child mortality and health, and participants are less likely to suffer from substance abuse as adults. These are all important barometers for the success of an education system.

In tertiary education, the focus has now shifted almost exclusively to employability. But the fact remains that our graduate employability rate is consistent with global trends; youths are finding it harder to find jobs that match their qualifications regardless of the education system.

In Bank Negara Malaysia’s March 2019 report, from 2010 to 2017, an average of 173,457 diploma and degree graduates enter the workforce every year, but only about 98,514 jobs are created for them. So is this an education system issue or an economic issue? Perhaps it’s a little of both; our economic policy should encourage growth of highly-skilled sectors while our education system should reduce the number of students accepted at tertiary level and expand TVET instead.

I have only scratched the surface of the potential areas for discussion on education reform. This is not to say that all the discussions and suggestions in the public thus far are invalid. I would even concede that perhaps all the ideas put forth are true and that listening to opinion pieces is enough.

But surely we cannot put the future of our children on the whims and fancies of thinkers who don’t bother to read more than a couple of articles on Google. With the number of public universities we have at hand, a well-funded research effort coordinated by them would yield the appropriate findings very quickly. Once we have identified the issues and formulated a raft of solutions to deal with them, we can devise a clear framework and plan forward. We need to commit to a long-term plan that is politically supported by all and not subject to changes every time there is a change in the government or minister.

I am optimistic that we can set our education system on the right path. My optimism comes from the fact that deep down, despite our differences, almost all Malaysians want what is best for our future generation.


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