Edu Nation: Waiting for ‘Superman’ to save our education system

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 12, 2021 - April 18, 2021.
Edu Nation: Waiting for ‘Superman’ to save our education system
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Numerous attempts have been suggested, tabled, discussed and proposed by various stakeholders in the pursuit of improving our education system. We were hopeful and full of optimism in 2011 when the idea of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) was first mooted. We hoped that it would be the catalyst to bring about the much-desired change and improvement that our education system needed.

After spending RM20 million on the consultancy firm that drafted the MEB, we should have had better results and outcome by the final leg of the MEB, or so we thought. Indeed, the MEB is a good plan with solid data, honest observations and cautionary remarks on the state of our education system and what we needed to do to make the leap forward.

Kudos for that good effort. Nine years post-MEB launch, however, and currently at the final wave, the situation of our performance, according to PISA, the international benchmarking assessment, is sadly still pretty much status quo.

The big target of the MEB is for our education system to reach the top tier of the PISA test. To be in the top tier means to perform above average and on a par with top-performing countries. The lower end of the top-tier countries with above-average performance in mathematics in PISA 2018 are Australia and Iceland. This is just to indicate the kind of countries that we should be on a par with.

We have been at the bottom tier since the first PISA test in 2009. Reaching the desired benchmark and baseline level proficiency of the PISA test meant that the students who were about to complete secondary school would have possessed the competency to apply their knowledge and skills. They would be able to analyse, reason and communicate effectively to identify, interpret and solve problems in a given situation. This would be the great enabler for better prospects in their job future, and thus for them to be able to socially and economically contribute towards the country’s wealth and progress.

Malaysia, with regard to our performance in the PISA 2018 assessment, is still below average, albeit with a slight improvement over the years. But we are still three years behind the top performers such as Singapore. This means that our 15-year-olds’ performance is on a par with their 12-year-olds’, or been short-changed three years of effective learning where the top countries have gone ahead.

PISA 2018 showed that many Malaysian students fail to reach the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics. Only 59% are able to reach this level, in comparison to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 76%. This means that 41% of our students can handle only the simplest and obvious tasks and most are expected not to continue beyond compulsory schooling.

OECD classifies them as “at risk of later failing to successfully integrate into the labour market and society more generally”. And coupled with the economic uncertainties that they would be facing, it is a big warning sign. The writing is on the wall. As it stands, even our new graduates are facing hard times securing jobs.

The bottom line is, if PISA is the criteria and benchmarking for schooling and it is the target that we are aiming for, why do we seem too slow and inflexible to implement the prescription of PISA?

The Covid-19 situation is a timely reminder that we need to seriously look into redesigning our curriculum. Remove what is not needed, irrelevant and outdated, and maintain situations that require tools to develop critical thinking and its application. This would include removing non-core subjects and irrelevant pseudo patriotic subjects. Make the curriculum compact and light using the PISA benchmark of reaching the required level of competency.

We cannot go back to the way things were, pre-Covid-19. So much time was wasted on teachers trying to match the curriculum that they lost sight of the important things to teach when it was done online. Little or no learning happened last year because many faced online learning problems.

We must take this time to reprioritise curriculum goals as advised by OECD, which conducts the PISA test. Progressive curriculum should deepen and broaden understanding, and teach students how to think, instead of currently teaching them what to think, which has been proven to be obsolete.

These children have already lost one year of learning because of the pandemic. Will our PISA 2021 results show we are four years behind the PISA top performers? Will we relegate our standing to the bottom tier of the bottom tier in PISA instead of the bottom tier of the top tier as per the dream of the MEB?

It seems obvious that the elephant in the room is the bureaucratic culture, nature and mindset of the governance in the Ministry of Education and lack of strong leadership to reform and transform the ministry. No amount of spending by any consultants will be able to repair the crux of the problem.

It is the management issue plaguing the Ministry of Education, and many other ministries, for that matter. The question is — how do we change a bureaucracy into a dynamic organisation? Perhaps we need a Superman or a Lee Iacocca, who revived the ailing US auto company Chrysler. Until that is recognised, answered and fixed, we will just be stuck, but free to dream big.


Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia

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