Friday, December 10, 2010

What Works for Reforming Sarawak's Failing Education System

Education reform is a top agenda of the new Sarawak state government. We have seen that despite massive spending by the Federal government and ambitious attempts at reforms, the performance of our education system has barely improved in decades. In fact, compared to school systems in the region, ours has seen a decline.

The Malaysian Smart Schools System - developed by a consortium led by Telekom Malaysia, and a flagship application of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) initiated by the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir in 1997, has failed to bear fruit despite the billions of ringgits being spent. The Federal government’s 2009 National Key Results Area (NKRA) for education has not produced any report card to convince us that the NKRA initiatives are delivering results.

Children in Sarawak cannot be allowed to fall victim to Malaysia’s failing education system. It is a priority of the new Sarawak government to immediately and quickly establish a new education system that works to raise Sarawak children to a level as those in Korea, Finland and Singapore – countries that have that world’s best performing education systems.

The Sarawak Community Action Network (SCAN) has undertaken a year-long study to understand how to develop a high performing education system for Sarawak. The result of the study is to be used by the new Sarawak state government to establish an education system that truly works for children of Sarawak. The new government cannot afford to have a single child fail and that is what today’s adult Sarawakians owe to the coming generations of Sarawakians.

The study involved an analysis of selected education systems from different countries that have improved significantly, analysis of education systems that have been maintaining top positions, interviews with some thought leaders in those education systems and an analysis of the annual OECD PISA results from 2003 to 2009. During the course of the study, elements that are specific to the individual system and those that are of universal relevance were explored in order to help Sarawak’s new educational leaders replicate the success of high performing education systems. This study is sponsored, in part, by Sarawak’s own entrepreneur, innovator and change agent, Mr Granda Aing.

This paper presents a summary of the findings of SCAN’s study.
The study began with these key questions: Why do some education systems always perform better and improve at a faster rate than others? Why do some schools consistently succeed where others do not? What do successful school systems have in common? What methods and tools do they employ to improve learning outcomes of students?

The SCAN study found three most important universal elements that work:
1. Selective hiring of the right people to be teachers,
2. Develop them into highly effective instructors, and
3. Ensure that the system is capable of delivering only the best instruction for each student.

The successful systems demonstrate that significant improvement in desired results can be achieved in a short time – 3 to 6 years. The systems also show that by applying these practices, significant improvements is achievable in failing school systems and that the practices are applicable to any system, irrespective of culture and geography.

The following commonly used approaches to improve education systems in many countries, including the US and the UK, have been shown to be least effective, in that they do not contribute significantly to student outcomes as measured by scores in mathematics, science and reading:

1. Increase in public spending per student,
2. Improvements in student-to-teacher ratio,
3. Decrease in class size,
4. Decrease in school size,
5. Structural reforms in the governance of schools, such as autonomy of schools governed by elected boards and decentralization of powers to local school districts,
6. Reforms in curriculum standards,
7. Changes in assessments and testings,
8. Funding of schools,
9. Inspection of quality, and
10. Reforming relationship of schools to communities.

The SCAN study shows unquestionable evidence: student learning cannot be improved without improving quality of instruction. It is also noted that almost every education system have undertaken the process of reducing class size. For example, most countries in OECD over the past 7 years have increased the teacher-student ratio. However, evidence shows that this effort does not significantly result in better student outcomes, except at the very early grades. More teachers translate to less money per teacher and systems cannot be selective about who could be teachers.
Evidence from the SCAN study suggests that the new Sarawak educational leaders must focus on quality of teachers as this is the main driver of the variation in student learning. The quality of any education system cannot be higher than the quality of its teachers.

For example, a seminal research in one education system shows that if 2 average 8-year-old children were taught by different teachers – one a high performing teacher and the other a low performer, the learning outcomes of the students diverge by more than 50 percentile points within 3 years. Reducing class size from 30 to 15 students improves an average student’s performance by, at most, 8 percentile points. In a study of another system, evidence shows that students in earlier years of schooling, when placed with low-performing teachers for several years consecutively, suffer from irreversible educational loss. In some systems, students who score in the top 20% on literacy and numeracy at age 7, are twice as likely to obtain a university degree as children in the bottom 20%.

Sarawak’s new educational leaders now have evidence suggesting that even in good education systems, children who do not make good progress in their early school years because they are not taught by teachers of sufficient skills and competencies, have very small chance of recovering the lost years. All top performing education systems depend ultimately on the quality of its teachers.

All top performing systems from Dallas to Seoul and from Singapore to Helsinki, dispel the common belief that it is impossible to make teaching a preferred profession for good number of high-performers and that attracting better people requires the government to pay higher salaries. These systems have shown that making teaching the career of choice does not depend on high pay, but more on small, simple policy choices such as: designing and establishing robust hiring and training processes, giving attractive starting pay, and managing the status of the profession more carefully. For Sarawak’s new educational leaders, it means legislating an entirely new policy on education so that a new education system can be implemented rapidly.

By continuing the education system of the Federal government in Sarawak, we will only fail Sarawak’s future generation.

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