Education reform: Facts over narratives

Primary school students start their new school term at Sekolah Kebangsaan Seksyen 16 in Shah Alam January 2, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Primary school students start their new school term at Sekolah Kebangsaan Seksyen 16 in Shah Alam January 2, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

COMMENTARY, Jan 7 — Since the abrupt resignation of Maszlee Malik as the minister of education last week, plenty has been said and written about the education system in Malaysia. This is not a surprise as whilst polls and surveys have consistently shown that Malaysians are more concerned about the economy, employability and cost of living, these issues are difficult to articulate — let alone formulate policy ideas — for most. When it comes to education, everyone seems to have a general idea about what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it. But do they?

If you were to conduct a search on articles with the topic “Education reform in Malaysia”, you will come across dozens of opinion pieces — some with huge reach as people share these thought pieces that supposedly represent the truth. Therein lies a fundamental problem with the discussion surrounding Malaysia’s education reform — the lack of genuine, deep-dive research on the subject employing verified methodology by professionals. This is ironic, because most of the opinion pieces and criticism claims that our education system should be more “science”-based and yet most do not employ any “science” — or even basic logic — into their criticisms and suggestions.

Where are the fact-checkers?

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, and people take it 100 per cent without verifying. The facts: Malaysian universities have never been ranked higher than it has been in the recent 2020 QS World University Rankings and there have never been more Malaysian Universities listed in Times Higher Education World University Rankings than the 2020 cohort. In short, by all “measurements”, our University rankings have improved over the years.

Or the idea that teaching in English will 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 latest 2018 PISA results conducted by the OECD which measures performance in reading, science and mathematics. Malaysia, unfortunately, is in the bottom half with scores below average across the board. This is a serious cause of concern but to claim the medium of instruction as the primary reason why we did so poorly may be misguided.

Out of the top 10 countries listed in the rankings, only ONE country’s medium of instruction in school is not their official mother tongue, and that country 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. What is the research to support English as a medium of instruction for Malaysia? This is where facts must stand firm in the face of emotional narratives.

The need to improve

Now, no one here is arguing that our education system is perfect and should remain as is but the danger is our willingness to accept narratives over facts may lead us further astray and cause irreparable damage to the future generation. 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 (pre-school, primary, secondary or tertiary). A “national education system” encompass all forms of education because the government — through policies — creates an environment that allows for the privatisation of education. A comprehensive “education policy” must consider the impact of privatisation and to consider its role in the deterioration or improvement to our system. I, for one, 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 to our overall education system, although it may lead to better outcomes for those who attend them.

The “purpose” or the “why” has to be established and agreed, because only then can we put in place the correct measurement in place, and see where we fall short. There are many thoughts and arguments as to the purpose of formal education. But to keep things simple, I would argue that formal education exists to develop individuals who would be 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 then look at measurements and standards. The easiest to measure is competency. An international scoring system like PISA and TIMSS, and rankings like QS and Times Higher Education, may have its flaws but at least it’s standardised. With the appropriate measurement in place, we can now 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 the tertiary level, for the amount of resources we put in every year, we are still lacking many of our regional peers.

What are the solutions?

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? Well, 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 back 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 with the wealthy continues to increase from there. For example, research in the United States showed that the test-score gap between affluent and underprivileged students has grown to more than 40 per cent 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 under-privileged children be introduced and expanded at primary school level and to broader communities? Should under-privileged schoolchildren be provided with state-assisted tuition programmes? Or should we extend school hours to make it almost a full-day programme which 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 — income-level of parents — out of many. But identifying a core issue allows us to create a platform for solutions that deliver the greatest result. It’s a discussion that 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 Higher Order Thinking Skills (H.O.T.S) format a few years back. One of the expectations under this model is that parents should teach the basics — reading, counting 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 parents who are poorly educated in the first place?

Our lack of discussion on pre-kindergarten and kindergarten education for our children is telling of this focus on narratives over facts. Whilst research in the United States has yielded mixed results in terms of test scores between those who attended quality pre-K programmes and those who don’t, there are clear evidence that there are long-term benefits like higher college attendance and graduation rates, improved child mortality and health level, and participants are less likely to suffer from substance abuse as adults. These are all important barometers to the success of an education system which goes beyond exams and test scores.

In terms of tertiary education, the focus has now shifted almost exclusively on employability. The common mantra is that our graduates are no longer employable. But the fact remains our graduate employability rate is consistent with global trends — the youths are finding it harder and harder to find jobs that match their qualifications, regardless of the education system. In Bank Negara Malaysia’s March 2019 report, from 2010-2017, an average of 173,457 diploma and degree graduates enter the workforce every year, but only an average of 98,514 jobs are created for them. So is this an education system issue or an economic issue? Perhaps a little bit of both — our economic policy should encourage the growth of highly-skilled sectors whilst our education system should reduce the number of students accepted at the tertiary level and expand TVET training.

This article does not have the solution

I have only scratched the surface of the potential areas of discussion on education reform. This is not to say that all discussions and suggestions in public thus far are invalid. I would even concede that maybe all of the ideas put forth are true and that listening to opinion pieces are enough. But surely, we cannot put the future of our kids on to the whims and fancies of thinkers who didn’t bother to read more than a couple of Google articles — like me, when writing this piece. A more thorough analysis of the issues at hand would probably result in a more cost-effective solution with greater benefit for the many. We need to balance this need for deep-dive into the issues of education reform with the desire of the public to see immediate changes. But I’m positive, with the number of Public Universities we have at hand, a well-funded research effort coordinated between them would yield the appropriate findings very quickly.

Once we have identified the issues, and formulate 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 minister or government. This is perhaps the hardest part — but to dismiss the need for public and political support smacks of naivety that is bound to put any real reform agenda on the back burner. I am optimistic that we can set our education system on the right path for our nation if we can harness the power of science and its methodologies in our way of thinking about the problems. My optimism comes from the fact that deep down, despite our differences, almost all Malaysians I know want what is best for our future generation. With this spirit, and by prioritising facts over narratives, we can achieve more.

* Najmie Noordin is a reader of Malay Mail.

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