JANUARY 14 — My first article on education reform, published on Facebook on the 7th of January, was a call for discussion on education reforms to be based on research over emotions, facts over politics, and continuity over personality. It was generally well-received, but at the end of it, I offer very little in terms of “solution” or policy proposal, and this was pointed out by a few learned friends and strangers.
As I mentioned in the piece, a key element of policy-making has to be a clear understanding of the landscape, with detailed research providing context and validation to policy ideas. This requires more than just “ideas” that could be conjured over a cup of teh tarik with friends (although admittedly, such process often produce some great solutions). An individual, at best, can only look at secondary information and publicly available data (which are often not updated), to formulate policy opinions. It is with this caveat that I carefully write this latest piece.
Key issues facing our education system
Before we offer solutions, we must first identify the problems. This may seem obvious, but many struggle to articulate the key issues clearly. For example, some parents talk about classroom size, or student to teacher ratio, but the facts are our classroom size (number of students per class) is on par with high-performing nations, and our student to teacher ratio is even lower than Singapore and South Korea. Furthermore, research has shown that classroom size has statistically little impact on educational outcome.
A good starting point to identify our key issues are the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 and the Malaysian Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025. These were the result of a detailed (but McKinsey-expensive) endeavour by the previous Government to articulate our key problems and prescribe long-term policy solutions. I recommend anyone interested – really interested – in education reform to go through the Blueprints, though at a combined page-count of close to 500, it is certainly harder to digest compared to super-condensed Twitter threads.
I would suggest that the core problem under the purview of “education system” and supported by evidence is the underperformance of our school children in Reading, Mathematics and Science relative to high-performing nations, especially in East Asia, and even to countries with similar GDP per capita (to discount for higher-income effect on outcome). This has a knock-on effect in later years as we struggle to increase the number of students in STEM-related fields, which poses a talent gap in employment as science and technology becomes more pervasive in all industries.
The next question is why. Why are we getting relatively poorer outcome even though we spend more on education than most of the high-performing nation as a percentage of GDP? Based on my understanding of the Blueprint documents, updated readings (especially in light of the latest 2018 PISA scores), relatively short industry experience and personal research on the matter, I propose that there are 3 key issues resulting in our relative underperformance.
Is time on our side?
The first is the factor of time spent on teaching and learning of English, Science and Mathematics. Research has shown that increased learning time programs improved literacy and math achievement when instruction was led by certified teachers (Kidron Y., Lindsay J., 2014). Fifteen more minutes of school a day at a school site (or about an additional week of classes over an academic year) relates to an increase in average overall academic achievement of about 1 per cent, and about a 1.5 per cent increase in average achievement for disadvantaged students (Jin Jez S., Wassmer R.W, 2015). Increasing instruction time in school does increase learning (Andersen S.C, Humlum M.K, Nandrup A.B, 2016).
Our problems in this regard are three. Our school contact hours – total days and hours spent in school – are just average. We are similar to Singapore but lower than South Korea, China, Australia, Japan and Canada. The exceptions to this are Finland, whose contact hours are less than most countries, and middle-east nations who spend a long time in school but underperform OECD average. Although it may appear that there’s little correlation between school contact hours and performance, it is worth to consider this factor in light of the next problem with regards to time – allocation of subjects.
We allocate a smaller percentage of time in school for teaching of science and mathematics compared to high performance nations. For example, we allocate 13 per cent of school contact hours for maths compared to 22 per cent in Singapore and 16 per cent in South Korea.
Finally, to further amplify the lack of focus on time allocated in Malaysia is the fact that almost all the top 10 performing nations with the exception of Finland and Canada – have a culture of “after school” teaching and learning i.e. private tutors. A study in Singapore shows that 8 out of 10 primary school-children attend tuitions with an average time of 3 hours spent per week. The culture has gotten so bad in South Korea that they have had to impose a ban on tuition centers teaching after 10 P.M. Regardless of the merits of this approach, the crux of the matter is we are under-allocating the time for teaching and learning of the areas we supposedly want to improve.
Inequality in education
The second key reason for the under-performance is the gap in socio-economic background of our students. After IQ level and quality of teachers and principals, socio-economic background is the next biggest predictor of education success. Research indicates that children from low socioeconomic status (SES) households and communities develop academic skills slower than children from higher SES groups (Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, & Maczuga, 2009). Children from low-SES families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students (Reardon, Valentino, Kalogrides, Shores, & Greenberg, 2013).
As of 2011, this premise is supported by evidence from our own standardized testing results whereby there exists a gap in educational outcomes between schools in lower-income communities. A more updated research, employing data from recipients of the Government’s Bantuan Sara Hidup, should be conducted to see more formal link between family income and educational outcome.
Children from lower-income group, in particular the urban-poor, suffer from stunted growth and malnutrition which may impact long-term academic performance. Children’s initial reading competency is correlated with the home literacy environment, number of books owned, and parent distress (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008; Bergen, Zuijen, Bishop, & Jong, 2016). However, poor households have less access to learning materials and experiences, including books, computers, stimulating toys, skill-building lessons, or tutors to create a positive literacy environment (Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo, & García Coll, 2001; Orr, 2003).
Additionally, under-privileged communities, especially those located in remote areas, also suffer from poor resource allocation. Whilst Malaysia’s investment in education is progressive – meaning that the more under-privileged schools receive more investment per student – it is still insufficient to offer a conducive learning environment. Some of these are beyond the school’s control – for example, lack of access to schools in remote locations often discourage attendance. Policies that address these inequalities due to socio-economic factors can improve the average score for the whole country.
Quality and focus of teachers and principals
Seminal research conducted in the state of Tennessee, USA in the mid-1990s showed that high-performing teachers can improve student achievement by up to 50 per centile points over a three-year period, relative to low-performing teachers. Similarly, an outstanding principal, one who is focused on instructional and not simply administrative leadership, can raise student outcomes by as much as 20 per cent (Malaysia Education Blueprint, 2013). This has been identified as a key factor in the Malaysia Education Blueprint, and early indications are that measures to improve the quality of teacher intake are starting to bear fruit, with the quality of applicants to teaching institutes (measured by their SPM results) improving year-on-year. However, the distribution of experienced, certified and motivated teachers are still skewed towards the better performing schools and building up a pipeline of quality teachers to allocate to under-performing schools requires time – an asset of which we have very little of if we want to improve drastically by 2030.
The Malaysia Education Blueprint also highlighted an interesting fact – whilst teachers often report (via surveys) being overworked and spending up to 80 hours per week in school, researchers discover that the time spent on actual teaching or class contact hours can be up to 40 per cent less than the OECD average. This indicates that teachers are burdened by non-teaching workload, or inefficient allocation of teachers and tasks. Whatever the case may be, improving on this, but pushing for teacher’s actual teaching contact hours upwards, would make us on par with high-performing nations.
I have proposed that currently, the key problem of our education system is the poor outcome as measured by under-performance in international assessment relative to our spending and GDP per capita. I postulated three reasons why we have this problem – our time allocation for key subjects is below those of high-performing nations, our socio-economic inequality bringing down the average score, and unequal distribution of quality teachers and principals.
Policy recommendations can be divided into short-term (now – 2 years), medium term (2-5 years), long-term (5 years and more) in both implementation and impact. For brevity, I would like to propose the following short-term policy to address the 3 reasons of our underperformance:
1. Immediately re-allocating our curriculum timetable to increase the time spent teaching and learning of Mathematics and Science in school;
1.Increasing the overall time spent in school for under-privileged communities by either reducing the number of school holidays or increasing hours in single-session schools. These may have additional benefit such as reducing burden of child-care for lower-income families;
1.Introducing state-sponsored after-school classes – whether run in school or privatized to outside parties – for the very bottom of the under-privileged children. This programme is a stop-gap to the long-term plan of extending schooling hours to the model in South Korea, Japan and Australia;
2. Increasing direct-cash transfer based on attendance and performance for lower household families with school-going children;
2.Creation of multiple Turnaround Teams, consisting of the best-performing retired teachers and principals, to be placed in the worst-performing schools for 6-12 months, as a short-term measure for them to implement and monitor best practices together with the local permanent teachers and administrators; and
Continue to use the Malaysia Education Blueprint as a guideline for improvements especially in teacher’s quality, reducing administrative burdens, and improving cost-efficiency.
Is this everything?
Obviously, I have only touched on one problem we are facing. There are also issues on pre-school enrolment, the increasing gap between the number of diploma and degree holders we are producing versus jobs that require them, the size of our administrators and support staff compared to the number of schools we manage, and more. Each of these problems have its own root causes, and will require their own 2000-word think-piece.
But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now. Notice that none of my pieces touch on school uniforms, removal of standardized examinations, introduction of Jawi, abolishment of vernacular schools or any of the more popular topics of discussion for the past one year. This is not because of my lack of interest, but simply because the research does not back any correlation between these issues and student educational outcome. We should not be dragged into pointless discussion on these matters whilst our children continue to lag behind our peers. I may be wrong on all accounts here, but let’s start a discussion on the right note. The focus must be on what works – proven from research and best practices. We can do it, but only if we know what to do.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.