It would probably not be quite correct to say that the findings of a survey conducted by the Third Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) of 38 of its members and published in this newspaper yesterday comes as much of a surprise to most Indonesians.
Over the span of several decades, Indonesians seem to have become used to seeing survey reports on education ranking their country far below others in terms of student performance in either creativity, science or mathematics.
Nevertheless, it is sad to see from the TIMSS listing that so little has over the years been achieved in improving the standard of education in this country. Compare, for example, the performance of countries such as Singapore, Korea and Taiwan.
In the field of mathematics, Singapore tops the list of the 38 member countries surveyed, followed by Korea in second and Taiwan in third place. In science, Taiwan ranks first, with Singapore and Korea coming in second and fifth place.
Indonesia, on the other hand, ranks 34th and 32nd in both fields, respectively -- better only than Chile, the Philippines, Morocco and South Africa in the mathematics rankings and Turkey, Tunisia, Chile, the Philippines, Morocco and South Africa in science.
The obvious question is, why so? To judge by the respectable performance many Indonesian students seem to be able to score in colleges and universities, the TIMSS findings would appear to indicate that some very basic shortcomings exist in our education system here at home.
Over the years, educators in this country have aired a number complaints about what seems to be burdening this system. First, the curriculum in Indonesian schools from the elementary level up to the junior and senior secondary levels is overburdened with subject that are "assigned" to the system by various government departments other than that of national education.
The often overlapping subjects of civics, history and the state ideology Pancasila are cases in point. As a result, students are overburdened with a curriculum that is too heavy for them to absorb. To address this problem, the Minister of National Education, Yahya Muhaimin, has pledged to place basic science, the English language and mathematics at the core of elementary and secondary education while reducing the priority of subjects such as civics.
However, all plans for an improved curriculum and all good intentions must ultimately end in failure unless a genuine awareness exists at the top levels of our decision-making elite of the importance of a good and well-planned development of this country's human resources. It is therefore encouraging to learn that the allocation for education in the 2001 state budget has been raised, even if only by some 2.1 percent, from the initial Rp 11.3 trillion.
Too much emphasis has in the past been laid on statistics. The number of school buildings built, or the number of students enrolled in schools, was often touted as yardsticks of the great progress made in education under the previous New Order regime. It must be clear, however, that while quantity has its merits, quantity without quality, as Minister Yahya remarked, leaves little to be proud about.
The TIMSS findings should make it abundantly clear that a sense of urgency is needed to bring about the kind of drastic improvement in our education system that this country needs. That means not only putting the necessary funds available, but also improving the system's management and the curriculum to meet the needs of the present. Unless this is done, Indonesia could find itself left even further behind others in a world in which science and technology play an increasingly vital role.