The reality of Malaysian schools at odds with nation's aspirations

  • Mathematics and Science standards among Malaysian students steadily declining
  • Education inequity is a real and mounting problem in our country

The reality of Malaysian schools at odds with nation's aspirationsMALAYSIANS are well acquainted with our nation’s desire to become a high-income economy. To achieve this, we must have in place a globally competitive education system that produces globally competitive talent in the knowledge-based areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
 
But this aspiration is harshly juxtaposed against the realities of many classrooms across Malaysia – including a Mathematics class one of our Teach For Malaysia Fellows, Hawa Othman, taught in Banting, Selangor.
 
4N was what you would call a challenging class. A large percentage of its school’s disciplinary issues were borne in students of this Form 4 class, with their short attention spans, violent spurts and general disregard for academics.
 
Challenging may actually be an understatement for Class 4N. However, amidst these challenges, two students – H and E – were invested in learning and therefore were miles ahead of most of their classmates.
 
Realizing their strengths, Cikgu (teacher) Hawa often pushed them with extra worksheets, more advanced exercises and tutoring outside of class when necessary. The combined efforts of the students and teacher brought about slow but encouraging progress.
 
This is why it came as a surprise when both 16 year old girls confessed mid-year that they were planning to quit school. They had to drop out to help their parents by earning a living.
 
The reality of Malaysian schools at odds with nation's aspirationsThis situation and classrooms like these are, unfortunately, not as rare as we’d like to think. Our nation’s drive towards a high-income economy sits incongruously beside struggling classrooms like 4N. And it shows in our poor standings in international student assessments like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
 
In the latest TIMSS 2011 study, the results showed steadily declining standards in Mathematics and Science among Malaysian students. Not only were our students below the international average for both subjects – we were ranked 26th for Mathematics and 32nd for Science among the 63 participating countries – our results also demonstrated the largest drop in scores among all other participating countries between the years 1999 and 2011.
 
Our scores trailed behind STEM-competitive countries like neighboring Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea as well as the United Kingdom and United States – in fact, we even scored below countries like Slovenia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania.
 
According to the PISA report in the New Education Blueprint, almost 60% of Malaysian students do not meet minimum benchmarks in Mathematics (NEB 3-9). PISA defines minimum proficiency in Mathematics as being “able to employ basic algorithms, formulae, procedures or conventions.”
 
By these international standards, our students were “not capable of direct reasoning and literal interpretations of the results even though they can answer clearly defined questions involving familiar contexts” (NEB 3-9).
 
If innovation and creativity are key components of a growing knowledge-based economy, then understanding, direct reasoning and higher-order thinking skills need to be honed in the classroom, especially in STEM subjects.
 
While the latest TIMSS results, which display quickly declining standards in Math and Science among Malaysian students, demonstrate the large gap between the country’s aspirations and its realities, another less talked about gap is the chasm of education inequity among our nation’s students.
 
According to the preliminary report of the New Education Blueprint, “the largest achievement gaps in Malaysia are still those driven by socioeconomic status” (NEB 3-20).
 
Outstanding schools and students are not uncommon in our nation but students in the high-need, low performing opposing end of the spectrum are even less so – and the gap between these continues to grow, even as our levels in international test scores continue to decline.
 
Education inequity is a real and mounting problem in our country. Despite measures to remedy this, a child’s background is still the principle factor of the quality of education he or she will receive.
 
The reality of Malaysian schools at odds with nation's aspirationsEducation inequity is still a jarring reality – and not just for the students of Class 4N. Our greatest endeavor is not just pulling up the quality of learning – not limited to, but especially in STEM subjects – but to increase achievement, affect and access for all Malaysian students, including Cikgu Hawa’s 4N students in Banting.
 
Although education reform seems overwhelming, Wendy Kopp (pic), chief executive officer and co-founder of the global education network, Teach For All, insists, “Every day, I see more evidence of the solvability of education inequity. It’s a massive and complex problem, but it’s solvable.”
 
The solutions for education inequity are complex and the questions keep coming, but recognizing inequity and addressing it is an integral first step.
 
As part of TFM Week: Flipped, a Teach For Malaysia program, Cikgu Hawa took her students on a field trip to Kolej Yayasan UEM (KYUEM), a prestigious preparatory college for Malaysian students to study abroad. She’d insisted that H and E go not only because they had earned the trip with all their hard work, but also because it would be an opportunity to experience a world outside of their comfort zone and a chance to see the world from a different point of view.
 
The two girls, among other students on the trip, were blown away by the campus, the students and teachers they met, and the lessons they learned there.
 
After the trip, Cikgu Hawa chatted with the H and E, asking them if they still intended to leave school to work in their kampong (village).
 
H replied, “No. We want to stay in school. We want to see the world.”
 
With hard work, grit and an incredible amount of guidance and support, H and E can do and be anything they want to be. And if they can achieve their dreams of being engineers, ICT specialists, or astronauts, even, Malaysia too can do more than dream to achieve her highest aspirations.
 
Teach For Malaysia is a non-profit organization with a mission that one day, all children in Malaysia will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. The Teach For Malaysia Fellowship enlists the nation’s most promising future leaders in a highly selective two-year, full time and fully-paid leadership development program focused on addressing education inequity in Malaysia. Teach For Malaysia is one of 26 partners in the prestigious global education network Teach For All. Applications for the 2014 cohort are currently open.
  
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