Mon, 23 Sep 2002

RI's educational standards not that poor

Simon Marcus Gower, Principal, Harapan Bangsa High School, Tangerang, Banten

Pessimism, sadly, seems to consume much of the thought processes of many an observer of Indonesia's education system. From expressions of concern over ill-disciplined students, falling basic academic ability in schools, poorly paid and/or trained teachers even through to corruptible teachers and school administrators, there seems to be a cacophony of complaints that is liable to cause a headache for even the most impassive of listeners.

However, should we accept such gloom and doom? Is it really right to be weighed down by these complaints and fears for the future of education in Indonesia?

Certainly we cannot be idly dismissive of such problems but equally we cannot allow them to so damage our outlook on education that we become down-hearted and even negligent in our efforts to make things better. Some alternative perspectives are useful in this regard. This is not an attempt to gloss over problems and paint nothing but a rosy picture where, in fact, thorn bushes are in evidence. But to cast a somewhat different light on the situation may help to create more positive thinking and, in turn, more positive attitudes and efforts in addressing existing problems.

For example, from the perspective of a little history education today can look quite different. Recently in a meeting with an owner/ headmaster of a south Jakarta primary school this education professional of over fifty years of age noted, with some embarrassment that he does not speak good English. He explained that his problem with the language stemmed from the fact that when at school he only had an opportunity to study English in the last two years of senior high.

Too little, too late for him but at the primary school that he now administers all of his students are already studying English and so are guaranteed both an earlier start and a longer time to study the language.

Similarly, an elderly gentleman of Bandung recently reflected on his pleasure at seeing so many students in that city. He expressed his pride in the fact that Indonesian's are "becoming more and more and better educated."

Here, then, from two historical perspectives education has improved. Both the depth and breadth of education has increased many times over. The nature of education has also been changing and improving. More students today show an ability to apply thought and thinking skills. The predominance of mere knowledge acquisition is gradually being challenged by students that are able to analyze and think for themselves; another positive sign.

To constantly hold up a mirror and criticize (finding fault) may not be fair. To constantly refer to, often arbitrary, league tables that suggest that Indonesia is near the bottom of Asian countries for education may not be fair either. If a level playing field could be guaranteed then such comparisons might be fair but often other nations benefit from a far smaller school population to be educated and far more available resources to support such a smaller population.

Of greater value then, perhaps, is comparison with like experiences; to see that problems in Indonesia are common elsewhere, and so not be unnecessarily discouraged by them.

First, a highly qualified teacher complained of new teachers that lack practical skills and enthusiasm for their subjects. He claimed that new teachers need better training and should be more carefully screened to ensure that they are really of suitable character to become teachers. What country was this teacher from? Not Indonesia but Singapore. He has consistently found himself at odds with the government education board there because of their "constant burdening of teachers and failure to encourage practical creativity".

Next, take the example of a teacher complaining of having to constantly do remedial work with senior high students that struggle to "construct grammatically correct sentences". A teacher that complains that "many teachers tell children their writing is not good enough but fail to help correct and improve the children's writing."

Again, is this in Indonesia? No, this example is an American teacher teaching in an American school; yet many Indonesians could recount similar tales of woe.

Thirdly, consider this teacher's experience. After working hard at teacher training college she graduated with honors and eagerly took up her first teaching post. She soon found, though, that she faced a heavy workload -- with teaching, planning and organizing and marking material and trying to meet curriculum demands.

After six months she concluded that she was overworked and underpaid and so she left the teaching profession. She took up a job as a Customer Relations Manager and quickly found she could earn twice as much pay for far less stress. This too could have been an Indonesian experience but instead it is actually a teacher in England.

The preceding examples illustrate problems that Indonesian education also has but they came from three countries that are considered to have superior, if not leading, systems of education. Some may say "well those leading education systems have facilities and finance to overcome such problems". This may be true but they too encounter serious obstacles to their ability to respond to such challenges. England for example currently suffers from its worst shortage of teachers in more than thirty years and 40 percent of new teachers in that country leave the profession within three years.

People understandably worry about standards and the fear is that standards only decline in the face of such educational mountains. But perhaps broader perspectives are needed. For example, in the space of two or three generations illiteracy has been marginalised in Indonesia. The ongoing reviews and amendments to the national schools curriculum increasingly exemplify a progressive move away from oppressive and heavily didactic modes of education towards more liberating and humane guidance towards an educated populace.

There can be no disputing the fact that major challenges remain in educating Indonesia's great population but these challenges should be met with a steady and sturdy consciousness that they are a natural element of a developing nation and its developing education sector.

Pessimism would leave us quaking and overwhelmed by the challenges but an appropriate professional optimism will allow us to put the challenges in their place and design strategies that will ensure the continuance of educational improvement rather than meekly allowing for any potential decline to take over.