THE national education system in Malaysia is arguably one of the most hotly debated issues in both the national media and at hawker stalls the length and breadth of the land. Everyone has an opinion on what’s working well and what needs improving.
In a way it shouldn’t be surprising that education evokes so much armchair debate. Unlike other sectors such as law or medicine, where the average person’s interaction is limited to watching the occasional episode of Law and Order on TV or visiting a panel clinic for a packet of pills, education is different. The 85 per cent of Malaysians that stay in school until the end of Form 5 each have more than a decade of direct experience of the national education system. If you spend almost 15 per cent of your life doing something, it’s natural to consider yourself as an expert and to have a strong opinion.
But the challenge with making education policy prescriptions based on personal experience is that it’s difficult to meaningfully generalise from the experience of attending two or three schools in one country to what works best for a national education system. Sometimes policy prescriptions are based on intuition rather than on reason and hard-nosed empirical research.
Consequently, there are some common education myths that are perpetuated in the policy debate. Here are four of the common myths and what the research actually tells us:
Myth 1 — Reducing class sizes results in better education outcomes. The argument goes something like this: reducing class sizes means that teachers divide their time between a smaller number of students and each child gets more individualised support. But what does the research evidence tell us?
There have been 164 controlled conditions studies into the effects of reducing class sizes, which have investigated the impact in more than 40,000 separate classrooms, involving more than 940,000 students. These studies have found that reducing class sizes costs billions of dollars in additional teachers and physical infrastructure but the return on investment is actually very meagre. Smaller class sizes do not have a meaningful impact on student achievement until the ratio gets below 15 students to one teacher, which is an investment few public education systems can afford to make.
In order for educators to fully capitalise on a better student-teacher ratio, they need additional training to change the way that they interact with students. However, that additional teacher training and support, on its own, is more cost-effective and results in greater student achievement than reducing class sizes. So with a limited budget, you get better bang for your buck in re-training teachers rather than reducing class sizes, because outstanding teachers can work effectively with large classes.
Myth 2 — Improving the physical infrastructure of schools improves student outcomes. Many commentators in Malaysia look on with envy at the physical infrastructure of schools in Europe, North America and some of Malaysia’s closer Asian cousins. The argument is that if Malaysia’s schools had the same level of facilities — air conditioned classrooms; language labs; libraries stacked with books and beanbags; and world class science and computer labs — student achievement would skyrocket.
Granted there are still cases, particularly in rural schools, where the infrastructure would greatly benefit from additional investment. This is especially the case where schools do not have access to electricity, stable Internet and running water and also where there are health and safety hazards within the school compound or leaky roofs.
However, beyond this basic investment, the maths does not stack up for radically overhauling school infrastructure. Recent CfBT Education research found that classrooms that have good lighting, acoustics and reasonable temperature control provide sufficient conditions for good teaching and learning to take place. Anything beyond this is nice to have but not really necessary. What it really comes down to is the quality of teachers and it’s both cheaper and more effective to invest in upskilling teachers than in attempting to turn government schools into physical replicas of top international schools.
Myth 3 — Overhauling initial teacher training will radically increase student achievement. Some commentators have argued that by radically improving the quality of pre-service teacher training, teachers will be better equipped to deliver outstanding lessons time and time again.
There have been 53 major controlled condition studies that have compared student outcomes for teachers that have undergone formal training and those that learnt on the job. Almost without exception these studies have shown little or no difference in student outcomes between trained teachers and those that went into the classroom without any initial training.
Most teachers learn their trade on the job — after they have left training college. Their first three years in the profession are the most crucial, when educators develop their standard repertoires. After this point, many teachers’ skills plateau and they enter the “coasting phase” where their pedagogy alters only minimally for the rest of their careers.
The evidence suggests that it would actually be possible to reduce the length of initial teacher training to around six weeks, provided that right candidates were selected and the cost savings were re-invested in training these teachers once they enter the classroom. This type of in-service training works best when teachers are directly observed and coached in their own classroom by a master teacher, who models best practice and gives teachers feedback on their pedagogy.
Myth 4 — The more you invest in education, the better the student outcomes. Some commentators, citing Malaysia’s declining performance in TIMSS and PISA, have called for increased public expenditure on education. The implicit assumption is that more money can “buy” more education and that the funding will enable the Education Ministry to hire better teachers, buy better quality textbooks and employ other tactics that will improve the overall quality of education.
However, education economists have crunched the numbers globally on the relationship between the level of education expenditure and student outcomes. The findings from many of these studies suggest that beyond a certain threshold point, each additional Ringgit spent on education actually reduces rather than increases quality. Often this is because the spending goes on big ticket items like reducing class sizes or improving the physical infrastructure of schools, which have negligible impact on student achievement.
Recent UNESCO statistics show that public education expenditure in Malaysia already makes up around 18.9 per cent of total government spending and that education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is also relatively high, with only New Zealand devoting a greater share of GDP to education in the Asia-Pacific region.
For Malaysia the key is not to raise and spend more funds but to disperse existing budgets more efficiently. This expenditure must be targeted with laser point precision at the initiatives that have the highest leverage and impact. Putting the myths to one side, the single biggest return on investment from this laser-guided policy comes from continuously upskilling teachers. The rest is just fool’s gold.
Dr Arran Hamilton is director of CfBT Education Malaysia (www.cfbt.com.my) NST Channels Learning Curve 27 April 2014