OUR performance in the international benchmarking test for the quality of education based on Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 (Pisa) is as we should have expected.
Pisa 2012 ranks us at 50 out of 63 countries. On the other hand, Pisa 2009+ ranks us at 53 out of 71 countries.
According to the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB), the main objective for the quality of our education system is to be ranked the top third of countries participating in Pisa and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey) within 15 years.
Currently, our achievements in Pisa show that the quality of our education is at least two years behind the last country in the top third of Pisa 2012, Slovenia.
Based on Pisa 2009+ and the MEB, we do not have any school performing like the average schools in Singapore, which are ranked as “Great”. Only 7% of our schools is ranked as “Good”, which was the ranking of average Slovenian schools for Pisa 2009+.
An overview of Pisa 2012 focusing on what 15-year-olds know and what they can do with what they know says that 51.8% of our Malaysian 15-year-olds fail to reach the baseline level for Reading, Mathematics and Science.
This means that, at best, they can only handle the simplest and most obvious tasks and most can be expected not to continue education beyond compulsory schooling, and therefore risk facing difficulties using mathematics, reading and science concepts throughout their lives.
Aiming for big improvements by talking about education transformation while just making cosmetic changes is such a waste of time and effort, not to mention wasted investments which could have been put to better use to tackle the core underlying problems.
What we need is education transformation with substance and, most importantly, without political interference. We also need to be concerned with the type of investments in education that should take precedence and priority for what we are trying to accomplish, without prejudice or benefit to certain parties.
Firstly, let’s talk about the teachers. We know that the quality of an educational system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. We need to have the best teachers in the system, take care of them, reward them well and at the same time maintain strength and stamina to purge out the bad apples.
There are many good ones who get demotivated with the system and leave. However, we should have a better retention programme to ensure they stay.
Let’s put some serious efforts in making the teaching profession a desirable one, hence people of better calibre would be attracted to this profession and would be retained. We also need to make it easier for those outside of the teaching fraternity to consider teaching as a lucrative profession.
Why can’t we spend our money on this most important weapon for the battle?
A red flag should be raised when teachers who are coming out of training colleges are only dependent on the Government for teaching jobs, unable to secure jobs that are outside of the scope of teaching.
What does it say about our teacher training pedagogy? We train our teachers to train our children to secure good jobs in the future but they themselves are unable to get other jobs apart from teaching in the national schools.
As long as we allow this status quo, teachers will never realise what it means to compete and improve themselves to stay ahead of the game.
Secondly, the curriculum, teaching methods and teacher training pedagogy need to be relooked to match international standards. Our rote learning methods, archaic learning techniques, superfluous social engineering push and too much emphasis on examinations even under the school-based assessment need to be restructured and restrategised.
What would be the point of our national examinations if they constantly show improvements year after year but are plagued with allegations of manipulation and fraud?
In addition, they also give us the wrong sense of reality whereby our students seem to be performing well in national examinations but choke on international examinations and thinking skills.
Finally, we must adhere to some kind of quality management system in education to establish high standards, perhaps an International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) certification for education so that we do not chop and change the system according to our whims and fancies.
This is something we should seriously consider throughout the education chain to maintain a certain kind of standard and quality without prejudice, and based on merit.
PAGE has been advocating the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), but it does not mean the restructuring discussed above for a meaningful transformation is not a priority.
What we are saying is, fix the system, take care of the teachers especially but do not remove PPSMI.
The system will not magically transform itself by removing PPSMI. We must put more resources in helping the low achievers perform better but at the same time, let the ones who can proceed go ahead.
Even Finland, which has been ranked as the top three consecutively since Pisa was started in 2000, was jolted by the Pisa 2012 result. Kicked out of the top 10, Finland now realises that in its perseverance to achieve education equity, they may have let down their brightest students. The brighter students from East Asia and other European countries have caught up with them.
As for us, we need to get back the mojo of our immediate post-Merdeka “can-do” spirit and pay attention to making education the economic driver once again. For as long as we keep making excuses, give in to mediocrity, neglect proper enforcement, and are weak in helping, motivating and mentoring teachers and students, stepping into the top third of the Pisa table will remain a dream.
> Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia, an educational lobbyist that serves as a channel between concerned parents, Education Ministry and other educational stakeholders. With PAGE, parents have a platform to voice their opinion and feedback on educational issues collectively. The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. The STAR Online Home Opinion Columnist 08/12/2013