M. Bakri Musa
The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts: Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Part 5)
[In the first three essays 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. Part Four discussed the report’s deficiencies. This last essay focuses on the very process of reform, or how to do a better job of it.]
The greatest weakness of this reform effort is its exclusive dependence on in-house or MOE staff, the very personnel responsible for the current rot with our schools. These individuals have been part of the problem for far too long; they cannot now be expected suddenly and magically to be part of the solution. That would take an exceptional ability to be flexible, innovative, and have the willingness or at least capacity to learn. Those are the very traits not valued in or associated with our civil service.
The Blueprint’s local consultants included Air Asia’s Tony Fernandez, Khazanah’s Azman Mokthar, and Sunway’s Jeffrey Cheah, presumably representing the three major communities. These individuals are terribly busy. Unless they took time off from their considerable corporate responsibilities, they could not possibly do justice to this important national assignment.
The international consultants were equally impressive. Again here I wonder how much time they actually spent talking to teachers, students and headmasters. Another significant flaw is this: With the possible exception of the Canadian, the others are from systems not burdened with the Malaysian dilemma of low educational achievements identifiable with specific ethnic or geographical groups. In Ontario, Canada, only the Toronto School System which is separate from the provincial has significant experience with the “Malaysian” problem. The Canadian is with the provincial system.
Many of those impressive consultants were conspicuously absent during the many public sessions leading one to conclude that they were more window dressing.
As for the public meetings, there were few formal or well thought-out presentations. Far too often those meetings quickly degenerated into “bitch” sessions, or to put it into local lingo, cakap kosong kopi-o (coffee shop empty talk), with a few vociferous and frustrated individuals hogging the discussions. Worse, there were no records of those hearings for preview, except for those amateurish low-quality recordings posted on Youtube. Consequently, opportunities for learning from those sessions were minimal.
The reform has its own website (myedureview.com) and uses the social media (Facebook and Twitter) extensively. Those dialogues in cyberspace were no better; the comments were un-moderated and simply the spouting of anger and frustrations. As for the few serious ones, the panel never engaged their contributors. The cyber forums, like the public hearings, gave few insights; the signal-to-noise ratio was low. There was no shortage of passion and strong views, reflecting the angst Malaysians have of their school system.
A Superior Approach
There is a better approach. To begin with, dispense with the current or past personnel of MOE; they are or have been part of the problem. Consider that the most consequential reform in medical education, The Flexner Report of 1910 was produced not by a doctor or even an educator but an insurance salesman! It still is the foundation of modern American medical education. In Malaysia, the Razak Report of 1956 transformed Malaysian education, yet its author was no educator or teacher.
The only qualification I seek in those undertaking reform would be a respectable education (meaning, they have earned rather than bought their degrees), a proven record of success in any endeavor, and the necessary commitment, especially time, intellect, and energy. Meaning, these individuals would have to take a sabbatical from their regular duties. I would have no more than five members, with one designated as leader.
Then I would give them a generous budget to hire the best independent professional staff, from clerks to answer the phones efficiently to IT personnel to design and maintain an effective website, to scholars, statisticians and data analysts. The budget should also provide for travel to visit exemplary school systems elsewhere. I would also have those panelists spend most of their time talking to students, parents and teachers rather than ministry officials.
The panel should also have sufficient resources to hire consultants from countries with demonstrably superior school systems. I would choose two in particular – Finland and America. Both have sufficient experiences in dealing with children of marginalized communities; Finland with its new immigrants, America its minorities. Yes, American public schools do not enjoy favorable reputation but there are islands of excellence for us to emulate.
I would avoid consultants from Korea and other East Asian countries for at least two reasons. One, they are ethnically and culturally homogenous; they have no experience dealing with diverse groups; the Malaysian dilemma is alien to them. For another, while the Koreans regularly excel in international comparisons, they do not think highly of their own cram-school-plagued system. Those who can, avoid it.
I would also look beyond the advanced countries to, for example Mexico for its Progressa Program, and Rwanda with its ambitious and highly successful One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) scheme. If poor Rwanda could have such an imaginative initiative, Malaysia could do even more. Rwanda demonstrates that an enlightened government approach could actually bring down prices. Rwanda’s computers cost under RM500 per unit! It could do that because the program is under the management of competent and honest foreign experts, not local inertia-laden bureaucrats and corrupt politicians on the take. Rwandan leaders are self confident and fully aware that they lack local expertise; they are not hesitant in calling in foreigners and do not worry about being “neo-colonized” or whatever.
Rwanda offers many other useful lessons. Foremost is that children from even the most physically and socially challenged environments could leapfrog the technological gap. That is pertinent for our children in Ulu Kelantan and Interior Sarawak. For another, reform in the classrooms spills into the wider community, spurring further reforms and developments there. Those Rwandan children dragged along their parents and grandparents into the digital age. Those elders are now open to the wider world; consequently they demand more of their leaders, like their villages having electricity so they could use their computers longer. They view those machines as agents of liberation and emancipation; now they can find out the price of the commodities they sell and the goods they buy directly from the market instead of being captive to the middlemen.
The only time I would call for ministry’s input is to have the staff enumerate the problems and challenges faced under the current system. This would also show whether they are indeed aware of those problems and whether their assessments match those of parents.
I would arrange the public participation component differently and also encourage input from all, individuals as well as groups. The initial submissions however, would have to be in writing. That would force presenters to think through their ideas. For groups I would stipulate that their report be accompanied by an attestation that it had been endorsed by their executive committees or general membership.
All submissions would be in Malay or English, with a translation in the other language. For those exceeding 300 words there would have to be an accompanying executive summary not more than 200 words, again in both languages. All these submissions would be posted on the panel’s website, with readers free to post their comments. Those comments as well as the original submissions would have to be edited (again by the panel’s professional staff) for clarity, brevity and accuracy, as well as to avoid embarrassing grammatical and spelling errors. That would lend some gravitas to the website as well as provide useful learning opportunities for those who surf it. The website as well as other media outlets must reflect the professionalism and excellence of the reform effort.
One does not get this impression now on reading the Blueprint or perusing the reform’s website.
The panel would then select from those submissions the few that are worthy for further exploration in an open public hearing. The purpose of those structured open hearings is to give the panel opportunities to elucidate greater details from the submitters, and for them to expand on their ideas. Those hearings are not meant to hear from new or on-the-spur commentators. Such a scheme would effectively cut out the grandstanders. Again, those proceedings, their transcripts as well as the video and audio recordings, would be posted on the website.
Only after all the public hearings have been completed would the panel gather to write their final recommendations, with freedom for each member to produce his or her own separate or dissenting comment. That is the only way to be credible.
The current process produces nothing more than a sanitized press release of MOE, embellished with the imprimaturs of those impressive corporate and international consultants.
Measures of Success
There are only four reliable indicators of success with education reform, and all are readily measured. The simplest is to stand at the Johor causeway on any school morning and count the number of school children going south. Trend those numbers. If five years hence that number were to dwindle, then you know that Malaysian parents have confidence in their schools. To be really sophisticated you could factor in the birth rates and other variables. However, those would not add much.
Similarly, you could take the train on a Sunday afternoon and count the number of youngsters in Johor heading south for the week to stay with extended families or boarding houses in Singapore to attend schools there.
Those chauvinistically inclined might be tempted to conclude that regardless how good our schools are, those predominantly Chinese students would still go south. If that is so, then I have two other trends to monitor. One, visit the top universities abroad and survey the Malaysians there. How many (or what percentage) come from our national schools? In the 1980s I could count many; today, hardly any. That decline correlated with the deterioration of our national schools.
Another would be to trend the number of Malaysians enrolled in local international schools. Now that quotas for local enrollment have been lifted, that number would be inversely related to the level of confidence the elite has of our schools.
These statistics are easily collected and trended; you do not need fancy “labs” for that. PEMANDU should assign a junior staff member to collect them.
Reform must be approached thoughtfully, both with the process and the people selected to lead it. The full consequence of the changes we put today would not be felt till decades or even generations later. We are only now realizing and paying the price for the follies of the 1970s.
As a youngster my father would admonish me whenever I did something sloppily. Not only had I wasted my effort, he reminded me, now somebody else would have to undo what I had done before he could do it the right way. Triple the work and effort, essentially.
These reform efforts consume considerable human, financial and other resources. They distract everyone, from politicians and ministry bureaucrats to parents, teachers, and most of all the students.
We have to do it right, beginning by having the right people.
The writer is the author of, among others, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.