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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #1

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #1
M. Bakri Musa
[First of Three Parts]

Quality Education and Economic Development

In referring to the low quality of our labor pool, the New Economic Model Report cites statistics showing that 80 percent of our workers have only SPM level (11 years) of schooling. That surprises me, not the figure rather the fact that the SPM is now viewed as inadequate.

That observation reflects more on the quality of our education system than it does of our workers. For had our education system maintained its quality, and today’s SPM is of the same caliber as the old Cambridge School Certificate “O” Level, then I would argue that our workers are among the most highly educated.

Members of the National Economic Action Council (they wrote the NEM Report) are old enough to appreciate that when they obtained their O-level certificate, they were in command of sufficient intellectual and other skills to prepare them well for life. The same cannot be said of today’s SPM, as the Report clearly implies.

In suggesting that Malaysian workers should have more years of education, the folks at NEAC are falling into the same trap that had ensnared others, of confusing quantity with quality of education. For if our education system stinks (it certainly does!), then it does not matter whether our workers have college degrees; they still will not be well prepared for the workplace, as attested by the already thousands of unemployed graduates.

As declared in the Center for Global Development’s A Millennium Learning Goal: Measuring Real Progress in Education, we should “focus on the real target of schooling: adequately equipping the nation’s youth for full participation as adults in economic, political and social roles.” School completion alone is an inadequate indicator of this. Likewise, generous funding, low pupil/teacher ratio, and physically grandiose schools and universities do not necessarily reflect quality education.

Consider years of schooling. One can readily appreciate that a year at an Indonesian high school is not the same as at a South Korean one. Even within a country, there are significant variations, as with an inner city school in South Chicago and one in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. In California, the students are challenged with calculus; in inner city Chicago they struggle with “consumer math.”

As for pupil/teacher ratio, South Korean classrooms are more crowded than American ones, yet that does not negatively impact the learning of the Korean children.

Earlier cross-national studies attempting to relate workers’ educational levels with a country’s economic performance used such readily obtainable data as the level of funding, pupil/teacher ratio, and years of schooling. Even with such crude measurements economists were able to conclude confidently that workers’ educational levels correlate well with a nation’s economic development.

That however, could be the effect and not the cause. It could be that when a country is rich, it could afford to spend more on education rather than the investment in education making that country rich.

Such studies also exposed some glaring anomalies. Latin American countries have universal education yet their economies have been underperforming. Egypt and South Korea spend proportionately the same on education, with their young having comparable levels of schooling, yet their economies are a universe apart. What gives?

The OECD made a cross-national study of its labor force focusing specifically on cognitive (in particular reading and mathematical) abilities rather than years of schooling. As can be appreciated, this was a much more formidable undertaking than merely comparing national statistics that may or may not be actually comparable. The findings of this much more rigorous study are even more impressive, confirming not only the earlier findings but also explaining the anomalies.

OECD has since refined and expanded its studies to include developing countries. The resulting Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey is sufficiently rigorous to conclude that workers’ cognitive skills are causally (not just statistically) correlated with economic development across a broad spectrum of countries, from developing to developed ones. Meaning, a country could not develop economically if its workers are cognitively not up to par, regardless of the number of years of formal education.

The relevant cognitive skills relate to critical thinking, language abilities, mathematical competence, and science literacy. It should not surprise us that Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru remain economically backward considering that, as per PISA findings, the average reading ability of Indonesian students was equivalent to that of the lowest seven percent of French students; the average mathematics score of Brazilian students was equal to the lowest scoring Danish students; while the average science score of Peruvian students was equal to the lowest five percent of American students, despite the same number of years spent in school.

Malaysia was not included in the PISA study but it did participate in the Third (1999) International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMMS – R). We scored somewhere in the middle, way behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. And so is our economy.

Malaysian leaders and educators do not like to be reminded of this; instead they would prefer us to focus on the fact that we are still ahead of Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru.

The American performance in TIMMS was not impressive either, and that prompted much soul searching. By way of contrast, in Malaysia I have not heard of any official pronouncements or seen academic papers on the subject. The only analyses done on the Malaysian performance on TIMMS were conducted by Malaysian-born American scholars.

Americans realize that they need a skilled workforce to create innovative products and start new entrepreneurial ventures that would drive economic development.

The American performance at TIMMS illustrates another apparent anomaly. While American students lag behind those of Asia and many OECD countries, the American economy outperforms theirs. At first glance this would negate PISA’s conclusion.

Two factors explain the apparent American anomaly. The first relates to the American curriculum and system of teaching. Since this is more important, let me dispose quickly of the second factor, that is, American industries, often supported by public funds, devote substantial resources to training and continually upgrading their workers’ skills.

My hospital has a department devoted entirely to the continuing professional education of its nurses, doctors and other personnel. American editors for example, regularly send their reporters to writing classes and to hear from luminaries in their fields.

For contrast, query any Malaysian civil servant on when was the last time he attended a course that would contribute to his professional development, and you would draw a blank. The response would be the same if you were to ask what professional journals he subscribes or reads regularly.

Returning to the more important first factor, while it is true that American students do not do well in science and mathematics, they shine in the critical and creative thinking department. Unfortunately these skills are not tested by TIMMS or indeed any pencil-and-paper test. The American curriculum, both at school and college levels, does not emphasize rote memory and regurgitation at examination time. Instead the focus is on critical and independent thinking. Thus American students have “open book” and “take home” examinations, a concept incomprehensible to Malaysians. American test questions probe your ability to think critically, not regurgitate textbook or lecture contents.

For those who find an “open book” examination incomprehensible, let me suggest some examples. If Hikayat Hang Tuah were a text in an American course, a typical examination question would be:

The central injunction of our Quran is to “command good and forbid evil.” To what extent have the three main characters (Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, and the Sultan of Melaka) followed this creed?

For Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Se Panjang Jalan, a suggested question would be:

Describe three major ranjau (obstacles) faced by Lahuma (the central character). Imagine yourself the assigned caseworker. How would you guide him to overcome them?

Come to think of it, this would also be a good intellectual exercise for my readers who have read both great works of Malay literature!

As can be seen, those questions make you think. Further, there is no right or wrong answer. Such exercises in critical and creative thinking are the norm in an American classroom. It is this that accounts for the continuing innovativeness, remarkable resilience, and entrepreneurial vigor of the American economy.

Consider this. The American University in Cairo, which has an American curriculum and teaching style, has an enrolment of about 5,000, less than one percent of the total undergraduates in that country. Yet at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, DC, a prestigious posting where only the best get chosen, 40 percent of the staff are AUC graduates. The Egyptian establishment has rendered its judgment as to the quality of that institution, and by implication, the rest of the country’s universities, including its most famous and oldest, Al Azhar.

Undergraduates at AUC are required to take a course, “The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions,” where they pursue such queries as, “Who am I?” and, “What does it mean to be a human?”

The Asian ‘tigers,’ their robust economies notwithstanding, appreciate the value and uniqueness of the American system of liberal education; they strive to make their own more ‘American.’

Singapore consciously does this, but is burdened by the fact that it relies on current personnel (teachers, administrators, and policymakers) and institutions to effect these changes. Unfortunately they have been brought up under the old rigid system. I never underestimate the power of inertia, systemic as well as personal. It is especially difficult for individuals to change as that would mean repudiating the very system that had brought them to where they are today.

South Korea imports wholesale American schools, complete with the teachers and texts. As these schools are expensive, only the children of the elite could afford to enroll. In a way that would be a quick and effective channel of changing the whole system as those students are destined to be influential in their country.

Japan brings in thousands of young Americans to teach English under the JET program. Although they are primarily for teaching English, nonetheless their teaching methods and styles would inevitably spill over to the ‘native’ teachers.

Thailand recognizes the limitations of its current personnel and institutions to effect changes. Consequently it attacks the problem frontally by opening up the system. Thus international schools, primarily British and American, are mushrooming there. As in South Korea, these schools are affordable only to the elite. However, because of the ensuing competition from the sheer number of new entries, the costs have come down substantially and these schools are now within the reach of the middle class. Such schools would spawn a new revolution in education in that country.

These countries realize that they have to go beyond the numbers, as with the number of school years or universities, and focus instead on quality. These excellent schools are still far from being the norm; those countries still face the major challenge of access, and thus equity.

How should Malaysia approach the dilemma of quantity versus quality, as well as the issue of equity in her education system? The rest of this essay is my attempt at answering this.


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