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Fixing Indonesian Education's Poor Scores

Bruce Gale - Straits Times Indonesia | October 07, 2011

Indonesia ranks 61st out of 65 countries when it comes to 15-year-olds' proficiency in mathematics. Their reading skills are a little better, with teenagers in only seven countries performing worse. (JG Photo/ Yudhi Sukma Wijaya)

Indonesia ranks 61st out of 65 countries when it comes to 15-year-olds' proficiency in mathematics. Their reading skills are a little better, with teenagers in only seven countries performing worse. This is the conclusion of a study carried out in 2009 by the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Why are Indonesian youngsters so far behind? Some observers believe the problem arises from a lack of sufficient funding for education. Others blame it on a corrupt and poorly designed national examination system.

These are certainly contributing factors.

An equally serious problem may be the education system's continued emphasis on rote learning and the failure of the nation's bureaucrats to use available funds wisely.

One of the great achievements of the Suharto era was the establishment of universal education and the subsequent spread of literacy. But the system has since fallen into disrepute.

Educationalists also point to a greater divergence in the quality of education available as the children of middle- and upper-class citizens gravitate to better-funded private schools and religious organizations struggle to provide a good education to the less privileged.

After decades of neglect, however, education spending has increased enormously in recent years and is now equivalent to about 3.4 per cent of gross domestic product, around the same level as Singapore's. Even so, much remains to be done. In July, Anwar Alsaid, head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's education unit in Jakarta, urged Indonesia to continue to focus on the sector.

The government seems to be taking notice. Later the same month, the local press reported that the National Education Ministry had allocated 762.2 billion rupiah (S$111 million) to fund scholarships for more than two million students from low-income families. The scholarships are to go to elementary school pupils in the first to fifth grades.

Since 2006, the government has also been working to address concerns about the need for quality education. So-called "international-standard schools" or RSBIs with more diverse curriculums and fewer students in each class have been created. These schools, of which there are currently about 1,300 across the country, are allowed to impose fees - a point which has prompted critics to complain that students from low-income families have been effectively excluded.

But the more fundamental complaint against RSBIs is that they have so far failed to deliver on their promise of academic excellence. And scholarships serve little purpose if the quality of education remains poor. Earlier this year, the Education Ministry stopped issuing additional RSBI permits pending an evaluation.

Educationalist Toenggoel Siagian sees a fundamental problem with the way Indonesian students in government schools are taught. "They don't teach students English. Rather, they teach them about English," he told me when I met him recently in Jakarta. Siagian's lament concerned the emphasis on English grammar at the expense of practical skills such as the ability to carry on simple conversations.

He has a point. Despite the fact that English is a compulsory subject at the senior high school level, few graduates of government schools can hold a simple conversation in the language. Mathematics, says Siagian, is generally taught better. But even here there is little attempt in schools to link the subject to the real world in a way that would help students solve practical problems.

Siagian heads the Jakarta Christian School Association (PSKD), which runs 22 primary, junior high and senior high schools in the Jakarta area. Many PSKD schools are well regarded for the quality of the education they provide despite the relatively modest fees charged.

Speaking to me in his office in Jakarta's Kwini district, Siagian also placed emphasis on the need to give students something to be proud of. As an example, he pointed to the girls' basketball team at PSKD's senior high school in Kwini. Membership of the team, which regularly wins national championships, is highly prized by the students. But no student can be admitted into the team with a high grade point average.

A committed staff also helps. PSKD's head of academic affairs holds a PhD from Cornell University in the United States. Yet she earns just 3.5 million rupiah a month and is not entitled to any additional allowances. Similarly committed educationalists can be found in some of the better Muslim schools run by organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama.

Such individuals, however, will probably always be in the minority. More realistically, Siagian speaks about the need to improve teacher training and raise salaries so that more of the country's better university graduates will consider teaching as a career.

Money is important. But it needs to be spent in the right places. There also needs to be a fundamental rethink about educational methods and goals if Indonesia's teenagers are to perform better in future Pisa assessments.

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.
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