Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts (Part 4 of 5)

October 7th, 2012

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts: Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Part 4 of 5)
M. Bakri Musa

Fourth of Five Parts: Roar of An Elephant, Baby of a Mouse

[In the first three parts I critiqued the Blueprint’s recommendations; specifically its failure to recognize the diversity within our school system and thus the need to have targeted programs, the challenge of recruiting quality teachers, and the link between efficiency efficacy, and quality. In this Part Four, I discuss the major areas the report ignores.]

Education Blueprint 2013-2025 lacks clear authorship. The document carries forewords by Najib, Muhyyiddin, and the ministry’s Secretary-General as well as its Director General, while the Appendix credits a long list of those involved in this “robust, comprehensive, and collaborative effort,” but the Blueprint itself is unsigned.

It is also impossible to tell who actually is in charge of this whole reform effort. According to the complicated box-chart diagram, the entire endeavor was anchored in a 12-member “Project Management Office” (PMO) that reported to the Ministry’s Director-General as well as to an 11-member “Project Taskforce” that in turn reported to Muhyyiddin. Both the PMO and Taskforce are manned exclusively by ministry officials. Then there are the local and international panels of experts.

Such a convoluted arrangement could easily degenerate into a morass when no individual is tasked to be in charge. Every military operation needs a commanding general; every orchestra, a conductor. That is the greatest deficiency with this reform exercise; no one was in charge, likewise with writing the report.

This is typical of the Malaysian civil service “management by committee” mode. So it is difficult to heap praise, or in this case, lay blame. That no one was in charge could be gauged by the final product. For a report that claims to be comprehensive, aimed no less at transforming the system, it is disjointed and lacks a central theme. It heaps praise on the system’s “remarkable achievements” for the past 55 years. If that is so, why reform it? The Blueprint embellishes how well our students had performed on national examinations over the years, and then cites the PISA and TIMSS reports that indicate otherwise.

There are also many technical but irritating deficiencies, as with the lack of references. The Appendix makes only general references to reports from such bodies as the World Bank, OECD, and UNESCO. Those are relatively easy to trace. However, when it quotes studies done by local universities, there are no specific references, leading one to suspect that those studies are not of publishable quality.

Those aside, my greatest disappointment is the Blueprint’s failure to address the system’s obvious and critical weaknesses that demand immediate attention: rural national schools; religious stream; and vocational education. All three regularly perform at the bottom; improve them and you improve the system’s overall performance. For another, the students affected are mostly if not exclusively poor Malays. This failure to address their problems is made more incomprehensible and inexcusable because those involved with this reform, from Muhyyiddin on downwards, are mostly Malays. While today they may live in plush bungalows at Putrajaya, scratch a bit and the kampongness would ooze out of their pores. During Hari Raya they all fled en mass balek kampong.

Surely on those trips they would hear and see the plight of the children of their cousins and other relatives. I too was once one of those children. On visiting my kampong recently, I was painfully reminded of my earlier challenges. Only now they are worse.

At least during my childhood I could dream that if I were to do well in school, I could escape my kampong. Today even if those children were to excel, their opportunities would be severely limited because their limited command of English.

Then there is the problem of school transportation. At least during my time there was a bus service, erratic though that was. Today there is none. Those children have to depend on fellow villagers who happen to have a car. If perchance he is sick or slept over that morning, then those half a dozen or so children that he normally packs into his tiny Kancil would miss school.

The biggest school expense my parents faced was their children’s bus fares. It still is for those village parents. American schools are required to provide free transportation especially for rural students. During colonial rule schools had hostels to cater for those from remote areas. If we have more such facilities then those students would not have to cross rickety bridges over dangerous rivers as often.

The wonder is that chronic absenteeism and academic underachievement are not worse with kampong kids. The Blueprint does not address this. A simple solution would be to have specific transportation allocation for each school for those pupils who live far away. The headmaster would then issue vouchers to be redeemed by the student and the village taxi driver. Better yet, the school could contract directly with individual village car owners and taxi drivers. There are other possibilities; all you need is for someone to first identify the problem and then diligently think about solving it.

The panel should be less enamored with advanced countries like Finland and South Korea, and instead learn from such poor countries as Mexico. The problems of our kampong children are closer to those of Mexico than South Korea. Mexico’s Progressa program pays poor rural families for their children to attend school. The scheme also extends to healthcare as with immunizations. The money typically goes to the mothers. The program has been modernized such that there are no transfers of cold cash as in the past, rather direct deposit into bank accounts. Yes, bank accounts for poor illiterate villagers! That also brings them into the modern economy, quite apart from bypassing petty local civil servants.

The poor are identified through direct surveys, so even those who do not register or distrustful of governments are not missed. The program is specifically divorced from the ruling political party; hence no political patronage and the associated corruption and leakage. The initiative has been remarkably effective in targeting the hard-core poor, and with low administrative costs.

Progressa reveals the close relationship between health, poverty, and educational achievements, and that all three could be simultaneously addressed effectively with a social initiative that is low cost, highly efficient, and remarkably efficacious. Progressa underscores the wisdom of former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, “You can’t educate a child who is not healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who isn’t educated.”

Then there are the dilapidated conditions of rural schools; many lack power and potable water. If they have power then they could use computers and two-way videoconferencing so that one teacher centrally located could serve several classes from different schools. This is particularly useful for small schools as they can be combined online. Similarly, the shortage of teachers for specialized subjects like music could be overcome by sharing one teacher rotated among many schools in one district. Both strategies are effectively used in rural America.

As for vocational education, we cannot be an economic power unless we have well trained and skillful workforce for manufacturing as well as for the service sector. Specifically for Malays, the only way for signs like “Mahmud Motor Repairs” and “Halimah Hair Saloon” to appear on our main streets is to train these skillful workers. Again, we do not have to re-invent the wheel. Germany provides an excellent example of industry/school collaborative apprenticeship programs.

Then there are the religious schools. They share all the challenges of national schools, only worse. Physically, the standard of hygiene of their canteens is atrocious while their hostels are death traps, lacking basic safety features as sprinkler systems. They lack even mosquito nets.

Beyond the awful facilities, the religious stream faces an even far daunting challenge. Its educational philosophy, pedagogical approach, and learning psychology are archaic, misguided, and simply wrong. This is an affliction peculiar not only to Malaysia but also most Muslim countries, and from the highest institutions like Al Azhar to the lowest local Al Arqam preschool.

Abdullah Munshi best described the approach and philosophy of modern education: It treats the human mind as a knife to be sharpened. Current Islamic education on the other hand considers the human mind a dustbin to be filled with dogmas.

The possibilities with a sharp knife are limitless. In the hands of a surgeon it can cure cancer; a sculptor, an exquisite work of art. With a dustbin all you could get out of it is what you put in, nothing more. That assumes nothing gets stuck or crushed at the bottom. Yes, a sharp knife in the hands of a thug is a lethal killing weapon. This is where religious education comes in so that when we send our young abroad to study nuclear engineering they will come home to manufacture radio-pharmaceuticals to cure cancer, and not build nuclear weapons.

What goes on in those religious schools and universities is indoctrination masquerading as education. The emphasis is on mindless recitations and the quoting of earlier scholars and luminaries. The strength of your argument is not based on logic or data but the pedigree of your quoted authorities. Religious education as presently practiced entraps rather than liberates Muslim minds.

The irony is that modern education has all the hallmarks of early Muslim practices and philosophy, at least until the so-called “closure of the Gate of Ijtihad” in the 12th Century. Many would attribute the decline of the Muslim world since then to this “closure of ijtihad” and with it, the closing of the Muslim mind. Those longing for an Islamic Renaissance would do well to first critically examine current religious education.

The other irony is that only in America and Singapore, two secular countries with Muslim minorities, have Islamic schools been modernized. Blueprint 2013-2025 does not even address religious education in Malaysia.

Religion is now a major influence in national schools. That is one reason why non-Malays are abandoning the system. Removing religious studies from national schools, as some are advocating, is not the solution. Then we would be back to my childhood days, where I was put in the hands of the pondok ustads in afternoon schools. The only way I survived that intellectual dissonance was to strictly compartmentalize my mind between my morning secular school and afternoon religious one. Sooner or later I had to reconcile the obvious contradictions. We should never burden young minds with such heavy dilemmas; instead we should guide them in reconciling the two and thus benefiting from both.

We should teach our young early that there is no contradiction between secular and religious knowledge, and that the division between the two is false and artificial. Keeping religion in our national schools would best demonstrate that unity of knowledge. Metaphorically put, modern education sharpens the knife while religious education guides one to use it as a surgeon or sculptor would, to good purpose. I do not suspend my rational capacity on reading the Koran or listening to a sermon, and I do not shelve my religious convictions when I conduct scientific experiments or operate on my patients.

Before we could bring religious studies into national schools, the manner, objective and philosophy of teaching it would have to be revamped. It should be taught as an academic subject, not as theology.

After discussing these major deficiencies, it would seem petty if not anti-climactic to cite the Blueprint’s other omissions, which pale in comparison. However, I will include two more. Though seemingly minor, they reflect the panel’s lack of diligence and failure to critically analyze data.

The Blueprint quotes at length in the text and appendix both TIMSS and PISA. Malaysia paid considerable sums to participate in those studies. They are well designed and tested a broad spectrum of students so as to get as representative a sample as possible. However, its report presents only a composite of the nation as a whole.

As is obvious, there are vast differences between the students at Penang’s Chung Ling versus Kelantan’s Madrasah Al-Bakriyyah, between SMK Ulu Temiang versus SMJK (Tamil) Ulu Tiram. Those differences would be captured in the data of TIMSS and PISA but Malaysian scholars and policymakers have not analyzed them.

In America, Singapore, and elsewhere those statistics are pored over, with reams of papers published. Not so in Malaysia. That is all the more surprising as the data are in the public domain. Had that been done, the disparities within Malaysia would have been shocking. Perhaps that was why the panel contends itself only with the composite findings.

The one chapter missing from the Blueprint would be, “Lessons From The Past.” There is no attempt at critically looking at past reforms, their successes and especially the failures. If we do not examine them we are no likely to learn and thus likely to repeat the same mistakes. Then when the next Minister of Education arrives, he too would once again embark on another “bold, comprehensive, and transforming reform.”

If I were to be tasked with this awesome responsibility of reviewing our education system, I would approach it differently. And that will be the focus of my next and last part of this commentary.

Next: Part 5: Cannot Be Part of the Solution if You Are Part of the Problem

Dr Ahmad Azman Mohd Anuar
Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Johor
Tel: +60136668334