Friday, August 17, 2007

A consultant's ideas to improve schools in the US

Thanks to my wife for referring me to this New York Times article about how a senior adviser to Tony Blair and now a partner with McKinsey and Co, one of the world's top management consultancies, was being asked to help improve schools in the US. I read three points in this article that are worth highlighting.

The first point Sir Michael Barber raises is in regards to teachers.

“What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?” he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great, in Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Alberta, Canada. “Four systems, three continents — what do they have in common?

“They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the U.S. selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates. This is one of the big challenges for the U.S. education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?”

South Korea pays its teachers much more than England and America, and has accepted larger class sizes as a trade-off, he said.

Finland, by contrast, draws top-tier college graduates to the profession not with huge paychecks, but by fostering exceptionally high public respect for teachers, he said.


I can't say much about the education system in Finland, South Korea and Alberta, Canada but I can say something about the education system in Singapore, where I spent 4 years studying.

As far as I know, teachers in Singapore are paid a respectable salary and continual efforts are made by the Ministry of Education in Singapore to review the salary schemes of teachers. Most teachers lead a decent lifestyle and perhaps with not as much stress as those working in the private sector or for MNCs in Singapore. And choosing teaching as a career path is also a respectable one though many parents would probably prefer their kids to be earning more money in the private sector.

To be fair to the Malaysian government and to the Ministry of Education, steps have been made to increase the salaries of teachers. From some of the comments from one of Tony's previous post, I gather that the starting salary of teachers have increased and adding in the allowances which they receive, their salaries are almost commensurate with some starting salaries in the private sector.

I also recall when I was back in Malaysia in May this year that the hardship or transport allowances for teachers who teach in the more rural parts of Malaysia, especially in Sabah and Sarawak were to be increased, I think as much as up to 1500RM per month.

But my impression is that teaching as a profession is not attracting anywhere close to the top quality Malaysians who graduate from either a local university or from abroad. When was the last time you heard a friend who after graduating decided to go for teacher training and decided to become a teacher at either the primary or secondary level? While I know many friends who are teaching in private and public colleges and universities in Malaysia, I cannot name one single friend, Malay, Chinese or Indian who is teaching in a primary or secondary school in Malaysia. If I was a betting man, I would say that most of our readers would not be able to name more than 5 of their friends who are teachers in either primary or secondary schools. I'm also willing to bet that many of our readers would probably be able to name at least 5 people who are either aunts, uncles or parents of their friends who either are teachers or were teachers and have retired.

Truth be told, I don't know of many of my Singaporean friends who have entered the teaching profession but I can at least name a couple of acquaintances from my Raffles Junior College cohort who have gone into the teaching profession in Singapore.

So if pay is not necessarily one of the main obstacles in attracting decent talent to the teaching profession in Malaysia, what are some alternative explanations? A few that comes to mind off the top of my head include: (i) the possibility of being assigned to a rural school, especially for those who are more used to the more urban lifestyle (something which Singapore teachers don't have to face) (ii) the possibility of being assigned to a school with a lot of disciplinary problems (which describes a majority of urban schools) especially at the secondary level (iii) the perception that there is little prospect for career advancements, more so on the part of the non-Malays (iv) the declining respect for teaching as a profession, perhaps because of a lack of publicity and marketing on the part of the Ministry of Education (v) the lack of aggressive recruitment drives on the part of the MOE.

The problems facing our primary and secondary education system are complex but certainly addressing the quality of the teaching staff has got to be one of the main priorities.

The 2nd point he raises is in regards to the amount of control a federal government has over the education system.

Comparing the UK with the US, he says:

But more important, he said, Britain’s political system endows its prime ministers with greater powers to impose new practices than any corresponding American official enjoys, since basic education policies in the United States are set in the 50 states and in the nation’s 15,000 local school districts, he said. Even though President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law has considerably increased federal influence over what happens in American schools, Washington still plays a subsidiary role to states and municipalities, he said.

“Once Britain’s prime minister is elected, he has a majority in Parliament and it’s much easier to change things,” Sir Michael said. “In contrast, the founding fathers created a political culture where you have to get consensus from competing factions.”


The Malaysian federal government is similar to the UK's in that it has almost complete oversight in regards to education matters in Malaysia. Therefore, it should be easier for the Malaysian government to change education policies in Malaysia compared to the US.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility and with this power, the Ministry of Education has within its capability, the ability to do great harm as well as to do great good. This includes haphazard changes in the syllabus, frequent changes in national education blueprint depending on the minister in charge, the failure to implement policies set by either the cabinet or the minister and so on.

But the fact that there is centralization of power in regards to education policies in Malaysia means that the potential to change our education system for the better is there and can take place faster compared to a context where the jurisdiction for education matters is much more decentralized.

The third point that he makes is in regards to the review process in evaluating schools.

The world’s best school rating systems, including England’s, he said, not only consider test results, but also send government inspectors directly into schools to search for causes of poor performance. McKinsey’s report on Ohio recommended that the state create a corps of inspectors like England’s, which reviews every school at least once every three years, examining the teaching environment and the caliber of school leadership, and suggesting changes, he said.

New York has set up a similar corps of inspectors, he added.


I'm not sure what kind of a review process our MOE has in regards to our primary and secondary schools but I'd be very interested to find out. For example, does the MOE try to teach the 'best practices' of the top performing schools to other schools? Does it have some sort of internal rating process in regards to how well individual schools are performing? Does it have a review process by which non-academic results (such as the UPSR or the PMR) are evaluated? My guess is that currently, no such comprehensive review process exists and that not much is done in regards to trying to improve the worst performing schools in the country.

For those interested in the report which Sir Michael Barber and McKinsey and Co did for the Ohio state government, please click here. It's over a hundred pages long. I'm sure that there's a lot of stuff in there which is already known to us ('taking your watch and telling you the time and charging you for it' consultant practice) but I'm sure that there are insights to be garnered and interesting comparisons which can be made between the US education system (or Ohio to be more exact) and the Malaysian education system.(For example, I was surprised to find that disadvantaged Asian and White students performed better than non-disadvantaged Black and Hispanic students and that Asian and White students performed better than Black and Hispanic students even after controlling for income)

In the meantime, we should keep our eyes on how well our MOE is doing in regards to keeping with the objectives of the latest National Education Blueprint. I'm happy to hear that the MOE is conducting regular reviews on how many of the Blueprint's objectives and plans they have implemented / achieved, according to reports in the past few months.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good Education stems from Good teachers. Good teachers stems from good education. See the interdependent correlation?

Whatever it is, neither can do wihout each other. singapore pays reasonably well for teachers, and pay isnt the only deciding factor or remuneration. Other benefits, such as increased maternity paid leave, subsidised medical care etc are all part of the attractive package to retain, reward and motivate talents in the teaching sector.

Singapore has in place a rather stringent (though not perfect) system to filter out the abled individuals poised for a teaching career. One has either university - NIE or NIE route whereby they received standardised quality training as a prospective teacher.

But i by no means am a supporter of the quality of teachers. I have seen all kinds of teachers from all sorts of background. Some are as good as can be, some are just downright rotten, as with any other proffession for that matter.However i think cultivating the right environment ( encompassing rumenerations and incentives, motivational issues, availability of cheap and convenient resource, desire to collectively improve the students academic performance, strong value system in place among teachers) is one major consideration. A teacher who is half as motivated, half as resourceful, half as morally upright, can be expected to yield the same kind of results as those who are fully motivated right?

daniel said...

I have several teacher friends who opted for early retirement to teach in private colleges. Although salaries are a factor, it is a only small consideration for many dedicated teachers.

What is important is that after 20 to 30 years of filling the ranks with people who are in the "bottom third of the graduates" (who many undeservedly found their way into the universities through some unfair policies), and many others who do not even deserve to be considered for teacher's training colleges, the status and respect of teachers in general takes a severe beating.

Which self-respecting teacher wants to be in the overwhelming company of the technically incompetent and those who are there just to "cari-makan"?

Anonymous said...

A continuing difficulty for Malaysia is the influence of Islam (which has many seasonal interpretations adhered to by UMNO) in education. It cannot be overstated: in a country where an executive does not distinguish between state and faith, institutions intended to foster independent thought will not thrive. Despite mimicry of successful policies or practices elsewhere, Malaysian institutions educational and otherwise are adjusted to support local politics of entitlement and ideology (the cynical capitalizing by Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia being one such example).

Education under such circumstances must necessarily be sought by independent effort. I suggest a modest idea - individual vigilance against revisionist history, if only to clarify personal thinking. One example of revisionist history widespread in pan-Islamic nations is the citing (by politicians, apologists and intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan) of Muslim scientists who preceded Europe’s scientific revolution. This is not rigorous in its claim. These scientific claims are not contextually specified in a field of what were, largely, pseudo-sciences like alchemy (the creation of gold). The actual application of foundling theories towards the scientific revolution is owed to Europe, as is the industrial revolution.

See http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2007/08/13/taner_edis/

Envy of scientific prosperity is certainly salved by revisionism and righteousness, like pan-Islamic claims for pre-historical ideas successfully developed by others. But ideology does not undo facts or make up for selective history. Nor can it create gold from hujan batu.

Anonymous said...

The effort to change our education system cannot just come from the Education Minister himself. As much as he has an idea how to improve our system, he faces a myrid of problems. Mainly political.

Let's look at the Chinese medium schools. The persons at the helm of DJZ, the deputy EM, the relevant decision makers from the chinese community are mostly 40s to 60s year old males. They have been holding their positions for a while, are comfortable with the boat and do not want to rock it.

If the Chinese education system has not failed them for so long why fix it?? Look at students from chinese medium schools now(Primary). Strict and most of the times ridiculous rules enforcement due to high student enrolment, rote learning, exam based system etc have produced a very result orientated hardworking generation..... sounds good but if we look carefully, they are also rigid, could not think for themselves, spoon fed, can't think out of the box, yes man, only know how to work work work but don't know how to communicate, lack of critical thinking skills, lack of creativity and worse of all many are faced with mental pressure.

Government schools on the other hand are just the other extreme. Students there are lacked of disipline, lack of motivation and rebellious, self centred, lazy but they can be really creative..... on ways of how to beat the system, play truant, cheating, joining the gangsters etc.

Our preschooling system are on par with the latest development in world. We are talking about montesorri, right brain thinking, instilling critical thinking skills and creative thinking skills, using art and music theraphy, sensory integration etc, but the moment these preshoolers start their primary education, all effort used in cultivating these live long living skills will go down the drain.

The rich have the option to go to private schools... some private schools are already using character building modules, assignment and skill based learning, smaller teacher student ratios etc.


Some opted for home schooling especially for those with learning disability like ADHD, dylexia, down syndrome etc.

Some very commited parents also started homeschooling and have their own little communities.

As parents, i would like to provide the best for my children. But decision making like this sometimes require input from other parties like my husband and family support too.

I don't think i will be much worse off but i weep for many of the other Malaysians who are not as well informed as some of us and i wonder how i can help them.

Unless and only if the decision makers wake up and take charge and are willing to change our education system, in the next 10 years, Malaysia will be severely left behind.....

Singapore has already realised this and has changed its emphasis from Exam based learning to more presentation, assignment and skill based learning.

DJZ, EM and DEM only you can change the fate of Malaysia.....

Chen Chow said...

Quite a few of my high school friends who do join teachers' training college after high school, or go to Universities to do teachers' training. A couple of my classmates also go for 1-year teachers' training after graduate from university.

So, there are definitely a bunch of students and some of them are in the top 5% or top 10% in my high school. So, definitely, there are some top talents who are going to teaching profession, although it would be good to attract a lot more.