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Pushing for excellence

WHEN it comes to education, money and resources are not the problem, says World Bank’s South-East Asia country director Ulrich Zachau.

According to Zachau, Malaysia spends a lot on education.

“What is important now are the specifics to address quality, and three particular things are important; decision-making powers, teacher recruitment and public information,” says Zachau.

“Malaysia can definitely afford it, and it has the opportunity... all it needs now is to pull through.”

Zachau is commenting on a new report released by his organisation on the local education system.

Published on Tuesday, the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor: High-Performing Education takes a specific look at the national education system at the primary and secondary level.

From the onset, the report points out that we have never been stingy on financing education — Malaysia’s education expenditure has been high since the 1980s, and more than double that of other countries in the region in 2011.

Acknowledging the success in offering wide access to education, the report’s focus is on the quality of the education provided, saying that “given Malaysia’s high and increasing spending on education against declining enrolments and deteriorating test scores, it is clear that additional inputs will not be sufficient to improve results.”

One example of inefficient spending is the number of schools built despite declining student numbers.

“While the number of primary schools remained more or less stable, the number of secondary schools increased by 18%.

“This expansion is taking place as the number of students enrolled both at public primary and secondary schools declined during this same period by 12%.

“Not only does this expansion in inputs appear of questionable efficiency given a declining student population, but it was also not successful in improving the quality of education — conversely, learning outcomes declined during this period,” says the report.

It also notes that 34% of Malaysian primary schools have fewer than 150 pupils, accounting for just seven percent of total primary school enrolment — these under-enrolled schools cost seven times more per student to maintain compared to regular schools.

Although an exact breakdown of the government’s education expenditure is not given, the report says that a “large share goes towards teacher compensation and incentives”.

Like the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, the World Bank report says that teacher shortage — in terms of sheer numbers — is not an issue.

Between 2004 and 2013, the number of teachers in schools increased by 30% and the average student-teacher ratio now stands at 13:1, lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 16:1

Once again, the question is whether all teachers are sufficiently qualified to teach in classrooms effectively.

Based on the Cambridge Placement Test that was administered to all English teachers late last year, only a quarter of English-option teachers in primary schools were deemed proficient in the language in contrast to half of such secondary school teachers.

Among non-English option teachers tested, the percentage of proficient teachers were 12.6% and 29.9% in primary and secondary schools respectively; almost one-third (37% and 23% at the primary and secondary levels respectively) of those teaching English in schools are non-English option teachers.

The report summarises that problems in teacher quality starts at the point of entry itself, and commends the blueprint for taking steps to rectify this by trying to attract more academically-able students into the teaching profession.

The blueprint states that 65% of those who were offered an undergraduate degree in Education (PISMP) at Institutes of Teacher Education (IPGs) last year scored at least 7As in the SPM, and only 3% of offers went to candidates who scored less than 3As.

But the World Bank report notes that enrolment in IPGs increased by 10% from 2012 to 2013.

“(It) appears that a shift of recruitment from the PISMP to the Postgraduate Teacher’s Programme (KPLI) took place.

“The KPLI had lower standards as of 2012 as only 12% of candidates receiving offers were high performers.

“Moreover, half of teacher training is performed by public universities (IPTAs) and quality data is not available,” it says.

The blueprint also outlines plans of an exit policy or redeployment for teachers who consistently underperform, which will be implemented in 2016.

However, commenting on a similar plan for English teachers to be redeployed if they do not pass the required standard by 2015, the World Bank report is a bit more pessimistic over the viability of the plan.

“This suggests a worryingly long duration of professional development — and a large financial investment — for each low-performing teacher, with little or no guarantee of success in terms of improvement in student learning.

“Given the high combined cost of personal emoluments and in-service professional training, one option that the Education Ministry may consider would be to reduce the “grace period” that teachers are allowed for improving performance before they are redeployed,” it says.

A big part of the report also deals with the need for more autonomy in schools and a decentralisation of decision-making from the Ministry, coupled with accountability measures such as making student performance data publicly available.

While the blueprint is making steps to address this, starting with delegating more powers to district education offices and state education departments, the World Bank report calls for more to be done.

“While this change does bestow greater flexibility on states and districts in terms of transfers, it is unclear how expanded powers to move human resources within a limited geographical area would address concerns related to differentials in teacher quality, or how human resource needs at schools will be addressed in a timely fashion.

“Furthermore, schools themselves would still have no influence over who they can hire,” says the report.

It adds that while the end goal of the blueprint is to develop a school-based management system, there are currently no clear plans as to how such a system will look like.

In this regard, the report presents several case studies of schools which can be afforded more autonomy.

The report also warns about over-reliance on students’ test scores to determine a school’s performance.

“The danger is that improvement in test scores is the only improvement that would occur, without concurrent improvements in other aspects of learning.

“For example, such a system incentivises teachers to teach to the test, with no regard to development of non-cognitive skills that might be just as important to success in the long run.

“In the extreme case, over-reliance on such high-stakes testing can result in exclusion of weaker students from tests, student and administrator cheating, and systemic corruption, as schools and districts devise ‘survival responses’ in an environment of increased testing and the race for resources and recognition,” it says.


PRIYA KULASAGARAN The STAR Online Home News Education 15/12/2013
Tags: assessment, excellence
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