One in four Chinese kids drop out from school. In racial Malaysia we like to break things down into familiar bite sizes, and race is one of them. We want to be a first world nation by 2020 but we're lagging behind the Asian powerhouses like tiny Singapore and (tiny) Taiwan and Korea; 3 countries which obtained their independence around the same time as us. In fact, when we gained our independence, we were in a far better position than these 3 countries. Today, our students trail their counterparts in these countries where a Maths and Science are concerned.
My boy tells me that their teacher gave them Maths past year questions from the 80s and they found it exceedingly tough. I give my girl the equivalent of the exercises done by Singaporean kids her age, and she finds it tough too. I use some of their passages with my Form 5 students and they cannot handle it. And those passages I gleaned from their Primary 6 workbooks!
But my girl lucky in the sense that I put in effort to keep her abreast. Most kids her age are already lagging, just going by our national curriculum. Sometime early this year, 400 000 English textbooks for Year 1 had to be recalled because they contained too many errors. They had to do a reprint of it. Before a textbook hits the desks of students, it has to go through a few vetting steps. Whatever happened? Lack of competence among those in the vetting panel?
So what has gone wrong? Racial politics, I guess, is the root to this problem. For too long we've been stoking this 'siege-mentality' among different races. And this siege mentality takes on different forms depending on race. So, we get disunity, suspicion, laziness, complacency, etc, etc - those sort of stuff that causes us to shoot ourselves in our own feet.
Chinese students who attend vernacular schools have poor command of English and Bahasa Malaysia. Despite being Chinese, I also believe that having vernacular schools does not help with national integration. I thought the former Mission Schools (like Convent, ACS) were ideal for national integration but somewhere along the line, everything started to get racial and the quality of instruction dropped. Values began to be eroded. As a result, even parents like us who grew up in the those mission schools flocked to sent our kids to the Chinese schools where we feel that at least, they are taught to be hardworking and diligent.... but Chinese schools don't seem to encourage that sort of inquisitiveness that many of us hope for. It's work and more work for them and most of the time it boils down to how much each of them can retain and regurgitate!
But that does't mean that national schools are doing any better. Nationals or kebangsaan school kids are only mono-lingual too; in BM. Their drop out rates is almost like the Chinese kids. Despite education being free up till the age of 17, kids still drop out.
I teach in a school at the fringe of the city. It's been years I think since I last received any student competent in English. Majority of my students come from national schools. I am usually left with the arduous task of making them understand English. My colleague who teaches Maths is having an equally horrendous time trying to get these kids Math competent too. Simple times table, basic fractions... Questions have been dumbed down so much that it defies logic how students cannot seem to solve the simple equations.
Something seems to be amiss here. Kids who come to us have gone through 6 years of primary schooling. Yet on my first day with my Form 1 kids, they listened to me with blank looks.I've had to go back to the basics. I do really basic stuff with them. I make them copy passages so that they learn to process vocabulary, grammar and structure. I go after them incessantly for their attitude. Many of these kids, especially the boys are not interested to learn. The lack of discipline and the right attitude show. In short I find myself doing the stuff that primary school teachers do with them because anything more would be beyond them.
The quality of English teachers is also on the slide. It is not uncommon to find English teachers themselves unsure of their grammar or groping for the right words. Neither is it uncommon to find English teachers uncomfortable talking in English. You may also find English teachers with postgrad qualifications not able to string correct sentences. And it is also normal to find that English teachers sometimes struggle in attempting to answer the students' questions too. And English teachers today don't read much as well! How then can they improve? I've seen some teachers who have taught English more than 10 years still finding difficulty trying to make sense of the tenses, singular-plural; basic stuff. As a result they make glaring errors when they speak.
If we are to study the education systems in the 3 countries above, we'll find that they pay close attention to the quality of their teaching staff. It affects the quality of instruction. Our system here does not seem to award scholarships to the best and brightest to pursue a career in education. Our best and brightest always seem to end up in medicine, law and those careers with glamourous sounding names. Ask a good student whether he wants to be a teacher and you'll get this horrified look on their faces! So we get a mismatch of talent. We are now getting the mediocre to train the future generations of our country. And we expect to be of world class using mediocre instruction.
Leadership is also another area. We lack leaders who can lead by examples. School heads on the whole seem more interested in the title and of course higher pay that comes with the title. Many bosses today are more interested to be tuan than of service and maybe that's part of the problem. I was talking to a colleague today and she said that bosses shouldn't busy themselves with the nitty gritty stuff. I disagree because the nitty gritty, the mundane are the things that we need to tackle in order to move forward.
And so after beating round the bush, we come back to its root. Racial politics... the creation of this siege mentality that pits one race with another. And its offsprings, Suspicion, Jealousy, Greed, Laziness, Incompetence, Pride, Injustice are sucking our nation dry.