MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Poor primary education may jeopardise high-income aims

 If we don’t solve the worrisome problems in our primary education system we may not achieve high-income status and all the attendant downsides that come with it, such as a low quality of life and inequality.

I am not saying that, the World Bank in its latest Malaysia Economic Monitor released last week said it, although not in the same words.

Comparing us with less economically developed countries such as Vietnam, the World Bank said we turned out badly in a number of key areas. There are serious problems with reading comprehension and absenteeism among teachers.

Those who have studied or taught in our educational system know that with automatic promotion, whole classes of students, even in urban areas, come up to Form 3 level without knowing how to read or write.

While some of them get kicked out at the age of 15, many of them go on to Form 4 and even manage to pass the MCE examinations because the standards are too low. This not only lowers the quality of students but prevents any remedial action from being taken because there is officially no problem.

This has been public knowledge for some time, but the Education Ministry and the authorities have done nothing substantial about putting matters right. We continue a slide down the proverbial slippery slope into an abyss from which it will be increasingly difficult to climb out of.

Lacking in quality

While the World Bank report, aptly titled “Bending Bamboo Shoots: Strengthening Foundational Skills”, praised the extensiveness of near-universal primary education at 99.5 percent, it’s not about the efficacy of primary school education.

It said: “By the end of Grade 5, 42 percent of students cannot read a grade-appropriate paragraph with comprehension. By the age of 15, Malaysian students lag aspirational peers in reading, mathematics, and science as measured by international assessments. (Pisa or Programme for International Student Assessment scores - a global measure for competency in reading, mathematics, and science).”

While there is success in access to primary education, the World Bank lamented these situations and suggested its origins: “Despite these successes, many children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, struggle with learning outcomes. The problem starts early, with a significant portion of children lacking school readiness skills, leading to challenges in reading, writing, and mathematics throughout their schooling.

“While most children entering primary school attended early childhood education centres and perform well on school readiness indicators, approximately 24 percent still lack school-readiness skills.

“Most of these children come from the lower-income quintiles (the lowest 20 percent). Since learning is cumulative, weak foundational skills in early life lead to low skills in later life.”

All these add up to the World Bank’s concerns about Malaysia becoming a high-income country.

It further said: “With Malaysia aspiring to become a high-income economy, it will need to prioritise improving human capital outcomes to match those of high-income countries. Malaysia’s human capital index (a World Bank measurement that measures how well countries use their citizens’ economic and professional potential) at 0.61 is significantly below that of lower-income countries such as Vietnam (0.69) as well as aspirational peers such as Singapore (0.88).

“To improve its human capital index, Malaysia will need to improve its educational outcomes, beginning with foundational skills.”

By foundational skills, the World Bank is clearly referring to very poor standards in some primary aspects of education which is preventing students from moving forward later on. That’s a strong indictment against our education system.

Falling further behind

Simply put, Malaysia is lagging Singapore enormously in terms of harnessing its people power, a result which is perhaps expected. But what is damning is that Vietnam is now ahead of it, which means that if things carry on like this, it will be yet another country overtaking Malaysia.

The report went on: “Since learning is cumulative, strong foundational skills will give Malaysia the advanced skills it needs to sustain growth and transition into high-income status.”

But that’s not going to happen if primary education is poor.

It’s not the only thing that is concerning. Absenteeism appears high among Malaysian teachers.

In a survey among Grade 5 students, nearly 40 percent of them said their teachers are often or sometimes absent. The corresponding figure in Vietnam is only about 5 percent.

These are relevant things for Education Ministry bigwigs, including the education minister, to think about. Hopefully, they will look at it. The World Bank has identified three areas that educators should focus on. They are:

  1. Start early and give all children a head start. This is basically about preschool education such as kindergartens.

  2. Introduce better and more frequent measurement of student learning and teacher performance. This will cover student learning outcomes as well as strengthen teacher appraisals.

  3. Support and incentivise improvement in teacher performance. The report splits it up into two - ensuring policy draws upon global evidence on what improves student learning and ensuring teachers know what to do, how to do it, and why they should do it.

The World Bank report confirms what many of us suspected about the education system and gives data to support it. It is now up to the Education Ministry to do something about it. Not doing so means we will be mired in the middle-income trap. - Mkini

P GUNASEGARAM wholly believes in the old adage that education maketh a man… or woman. He hopes the leadership does too.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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