In a report based on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of half a million 15-year-old students in 65 countries, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned Western countries of the prospect of losing their knowledge and skill base.
In contrast, several Asian countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore outperformed most other countries. China’s Shanghai took the PISA test for the first time and ranked first in all three areas: reading, mathematics and science (The Jakarta Post, Dec. 9, 2010). The Chinese government has been lauded for its investment in human capital.
It is ironic that just as PISA is highly regarded as a prestigious measure and the world is impressed by Shanghai’s achievement, insiders’ perspectives reveal skeptical and critical thoughts of the results.
One critical response came from Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal of Peking University High School and director of the International Division. Mr. Jiang is concerned that the “high scores of Shanghai’s students are actually a sign of weakness”.
He further worries that Chinese students are drowned in rote-learning practices and burn themselves out in the effort to gain a place at university while neglecting the chance to enhance their imagination and creativity as well as develop their passion for learning. He firmly believes that Chinese students should unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them and develop their own critical thinking skills (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 10-12, 2010, page 12).
Along the same line, a Chinese professor at Michigan State University, Yong Zhao laments the education paradigm shift entailed in the “No Child Left Behind” policy issued during the George W. Bush administration.
In his book Catching Up or Leading the Way (2010), he compares recent changes in the Chinese and US education systems.
While China has just realized that rote learning practices will not work to prepare entrepreneurs and innovators to run the 21st century global economy, Yong Zhao regrets that the US’ education system has been reduced to standardized tests results.
Jealous of America’s ability to turn its brightest students into the world’s best scientists and businesspeople, the Chinese government just released a 10-year plan including curricular reforms to promote individuality, diversity and creativity.
What about Indonesia? Although our students have made little progress in reading proficiency, Indonesia still ranked 57th of 65 countries in 2009 PISA.
Over the years, Indonesia has stalled a few ranks from the bottom. This prevailing situation has perhaps led to test-driven practices in the school system.
Within the formal system, the national final exam has significantly determined school practices and reduced teaching and learning to test drilling. As an extension of the formal school system, Olympic-style competitions that involve the brightest students in the country have provided the limelight of our best achievement as well as served as a mirage of consolation typically experienced by those who are deprived of the fulfillment of their basic needs.
At its best, this achievement-driven frenzy is analogous to offering candy to malnourished children. At its worst, the test-driven education policies and practices have in reality benefited only operators of cram courses and publishers of test drills materials. Students who should be in the best interest of the education policy have been violated and deprived of the chances to develop their human capacity and enhance their creativity.
Deciding what is best for our school children and the nation should not be confused with meeting the political needs of satisfactory statistical ranking and international comparison. The best curriculum design and development should be in the best interest of the students and our own nation. To improve the quality of education in Indonesia, curricular reforms should attempt to meet the four basic needs of school children: a safe and comfortable learning environment, a second home, a community of peers and a chance to design their future.
Schools should serve as safe and comfortable environments for students to explore their curiosity and develop their passion for learning. The breadth of any curriculum will not be adequate to equip students to lead the 21st century. Schools should better prepare students to develop their learning skills so they can further carry on in the rest of their own learning journey.
Second, schools are avenues for children to prepare themselves before entering the world of adults.
Therefore, schools should be a second home where children interact with adults who care for them and whom they can respect. Third, students have the opportunity to develop their human capacity to live peacefully and work productively with others through the community of peers in school.
Finally, any school project and assignment should be planned in such a way that students are oriented toward designing their own future. In preparing themselves to live and lead the 21st century, they are developing their own potentials to be men and women who contribute to bettering their society.
In brief, the purpose of any educational reform should extend beyond preparing students to be good test-takers.
The poor performance of Indonesian students in the PISA test will spark concerns over the state of our education in the following days. As in the previous years, PISA test results are often used as an illustration in public seminars and discussions. Hopefully, the concerns will further lead to genuine education reforms in the best interest of students.
The writer is a professor of education at Widya Mandala Catholic University, Surabaya.