by M. Bakri Musa
Second of Five Parts: Quality Schools Begin With Quality Teachers
[In Part One, I discussed the Blueprint’s failure to recognize the diversity within our school system and the need to have different solutions for different constituents. In this Part Two, I discuss the particular challenge of having competent teachers especially in science, English, and mathematics that is not adequately addressed in the report.]
In the 1950s, the headmaster of my Tuanku Muhammad School, Kuala Pilah, lived in a palatial bungalow up on the hill, next to the residence of the District Officer. Two decades later, his successor was renting a modest house from my father, a retired Malay primary school teacher. As for that hilltop house, it is now occupied by a civil servant.
In the 1960s when the Minister of Education visited Malay College he was noticeably deferential to its headmaster. Today, the threat of a visit by a lowly ministry functionary would throw the headmaster and his senior staff into a tizzy.
Those are the realities of the teaching profession in Malaysia today. The folks that produced Education Blueprint 2013-2025 see the world of Malaysian teachers differently. They brag about having 38 applicants for every teaching slot, way over the eight in Finland, acknowledged as having the best schools and teachers.
What gives? Just a few lines away and easily missed by careless readers, the Blueprint reveals that over a third of those applicants lacked even the minimal (and very low) current qualifications. Imagine! The perception students have of the teaching profession is this: If you are not qualified for anything else, apply to be a teacher.
The panel wants to tighten the qualifications so only those in the top third could apply. Great, but how? As a mental exercise, I wonder how many of the current applicants would qualify if the proposed higher standards were to be applied. If the panel had done so, it would realize the magnitude of the problem. They would then be dissuaded from resorting to simplistic solutions as merely raising the entry requirements. The challenge is not with imposing tighter criteria (that could be done simply with a directive) but enticing those top students.
The panel’s approach to the teacher issue is reflective of its collective muddled thinking. Its members are unable to look at data critically or know the limitations even when those figures defy reality and common sense. They are easily mesmerized and be taken in by such silly statistics as over 38 applicants per teaching slot.
Yes, there is a glut of applicants, but only from those in Malay and Islamic Studies. They are unemployable elsewhere. The critical shortage is in science, English, and mathematics (SEM). The focus should thus be on this critical and difficult challenge instead of searching for an overarching solution to all problems, or ones that do not even exist, as with Islamic Studies teachers. And some problems could be solved simply through less meddling from the ministry.
Consider another set of figures cited in the Blueprint: Malaysian teachers have comparable pay to and are treated like their peers outside the profession. Again, reality is far different, as attested to by that headmaster renting a house. Salary figures alone do not tell the whole story, as with that bureaucrat’s house on the hill.
As the Blueprint does not provide actionable recommendations to address this critical shortage of SEM teachers, I put forth mine.
First, I would double their stipends during training. To help defray the costs I would simultaneously reduce the stipends for the others, especially those in Malay and Islamic Studies. We already have a glut of them. If that does not attract enough top candidates, I would sweeten the deal. Guarantee them scholarships to pursue a degree upon graduation from teachers’ college. That would also encourage them to enhance their qualifications to enable them to enter university.
If that still does not attract enough top applicants, then try another tack. I would select from the next tier – those just below the top third – but put them through six months to a year of rigorous “prep” where they would undertake intensive classes in the three subjects. Those who do well would then continue on. Again I would pay them during this “prep” year.
While those thus chosen may not initially be in the top third as per ministry’s criteria, but then as noted earlier, our national examinations do not correlate well with international tests. It may well be that those not currently in the top third by local criteria may be the truly smart ones.
Another factor to attracting top candidates would be to have superior teachers’ colleges. It is a sad commentary that despite the demonstrated critical shortage, only one of the 27 teachers’ colleges is devoted to training science teachers and one for international languages but not English exclusively. It is no better at the universities; not one has a dedicated Department of English. That is the gulf between intent and action, between talk and walk.
The ministry’s perennial training mode is “crash” or short-term culup courses of a few weeks or even days. It proudly proclaimed to have “trained” thousands of such teachers. Ever wonder why our students have abysmal results or why the talented are not attracted to teaching?
Convert a dozen existing colleges into exclusively English-medium for training SEM teachers. This should have been done earlier in preparation for the switch in teaching science and mathematics in English. Had that been done, the initiative would have been more likely to succeed, and we would have spared our children yet another disruptive switch a few years later when we reverted to teaching those two subjects in Malay.
Making those colleges all-English would also help attract top students. Those smart students know that furthering their education in English would expand their career, intellectual, and other horizons. Look at the earlier experiences with Kirby and Brinsford Lodge graduates.
To attract top candidates you also need a first class physical campus and facilities, meaning among other things, not only air-conditioned lecture theaters but also residence halls. I would also give trainees free I-pads or laptops. I would pamper them beyond their college years, as with extra allowances. If they were to serve in rural areas they would get additional allowances that could effectively double their pay. Beyond that I would ensure that they would get first priority for those coveted on-campus quarters and government houses generally.
These tangible recognitions would be far more effective than such things are Tokoh Guru (Champion Teachers) awards and other public ceremonies. Of course it would help if the government were to also recognize outstanding teachers and educators in its civil award lists.
The measures proposed here would produce not only competent SEM teachers but also truly be bilingual ones. And bilingual teachers would produce bilingual students, another stated goal of the Blueprint.
I applaud the Blueprint for advocating greater autonomy and authority for headmasters. However, it would be difficult for them to exercise both when those bureaucrats at the ministry are paid and treated so much better. The Minister of Education in the 1960s was deferential to Malay College’s Ryan not because he was the headmaster rather that as an expatriate he was paid so much more than the minister! That was also the reason why Ryan did not kow tow to those politicians and bureaucrats.
While issues of pay, autonomy and respect are important, those are not the main considerations in opting for teaching. As a former teacher, and as my parents who were longtime teachers demonstrated, the greatest satisfaction is to see the sparkle in your students’ eyes when they learn or discover something new, and the reflected glory you quietly savor on seeing your former students achieve great heights. Consider that as a physician, the best that I could do for my patients is to restore them to their pre-illness state. For a teacher however, there is no limit to the potential achievement of her students.
It is this professional satisfaction that drives teachers. Before they can get to savor that, they first must be treated as true professionals.
Training competent teachers takes time; meanwhile we have an immediate problem in the classrooms with respect to SEM teachers. Specifically for English teachers, Malaysia used to have a big pool of them but we have squandered that precious resource. Attempts at enticing them out of retirement have been marked by incompetence and outward antagonism by those in charge. The reason is obvious. Those retired teachers would put their present colleagues to shame. Thus instead of encouraging them, current headmasters are intent on imposing obstacles.
There is another large pool, native English-speaking spouses of expatriates and Malaysians. They can be trained “on the job” in the manner of the old “Normal” teachers. We need to be flexible and innovative.
One of the Blueprint’s consultants is the former South Korean Minister of Education. I am surprised that he did not recommend for Malaysia to import SEM teachers as South Korea and other (especially Asian) countries are doing. Thailand demonstrates that you do not have to pay exorbitant expatriate pay to recruit them. Malaysia has a small program undertaken jointly with the Fulbright Foundation. I see no reason why we cannot do it independent of American agencies.
Teachers do not operate in a vacuum; good teachers need good schools. My greatest disappointment with this report is its lack of ideas on revamping what is obviously a failing system – our national schools (more on this later). Non-Malays have already abandoned the system; now Malays too are joining them. This failure mocks the Blueprint’s claim to be transformational.
The only innovative idea was liberalizing local enrollment in international schools, but that was done long before this report. Besides, that measure is only the “letting out of steam” to satisfy the elite.
In an earlier book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003), I proposed charter schools and the decoupling of the identification of vernacular schools with race. Charter schools would get the same financial and other governmental support as national schools but would be free of ministry’s control, especially with respect to the curriculum and medium of instruction. The only stipulation is that their enrollment must reflect the general society and their graduates must be fluent in Malay and English. How that is achieved is left to the genius of the school’s management.
The other is to make Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan China for example, less of a school for Chinese, more one using Mandarin as its medium of instruction and catering to all Malaysians who desire such an education. Meaning, these schools must make serious efforts at attracting non-Chinese especially Malays, as with having halal canteens and teaching Islamic Studies in Mandarin, as they do in China. Along the same vein, I see no reason why there cannot be Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Arab, Inggeris, or even Swahili, supported by the government as long as they attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.
Having students of all races study and play together would advance the Blueprint’s unity agenda far more effectively than all the other measures combined. As a bonus, diversity in the classrooms enhances the learning environment.
For Malaysia, there is another and very special reason for actively encouraging diversity in the classroom. If we continue with the present trend of self-segregation, we would end up like Northern Ireland. That wretched country has a well-educated populace; alas it is deeply and viciously divided. Malaysia had a taste of its own Northern Ireland not too long ago; we have no wish to repeat that bitter, bloody experience.
Next: Part 3: Quality, Efficiency. Efficacy, And Trimming The Fat