Education today facing crisis

According to data from the Gapminder Foundation, over the past 10 years, eighth-grade math achievement scores across the world have either steadily ...

According to data from the Gapminder Foundation, over the past 10 years, eighth-grade math achievement scores across the world have either steadily declined or have flatlined entirely. This trend can be seen even in developed Asian countries like Singapore and Japan, and it is drastic, with some countries showing a drop of over seven percent within the 10-year period.
In the United Kingdom and the United States, it’s the same story. Test scores are declining, and at the same time, more and more students are falling behind their grade level in terms of literacy and numeracy, sometimes as many as two or three grade levels back. Two possible explanation of this widespread phenomenon come to mind. One, student intelligence is dropping, or two — more realistically — there is something wrong with our approach to education.
In 2010, Davis Guggenheim set out to document what he saw as the failure of public school education in America. The film “Waiting for Superman” received praise and quite a few criticisms from various critics, including Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn.
I’ve been meaning to write an article on the various issues I see with the current approach to education for a while now, but watching that film finally catalyzed the ideas enough for me to put them down. I believe there are three reasons behind the crisis we are facing, which I call the three Ts: Teachers, Tracking and Testing.
I will also make some comparisons between U.S. educational philosophy and draw on my experience as a public school student in Malaysia to color this commentary with my real-life experiences and observations.
Teachers are an integral part of the education system, and they are the direct contact point between the curriculum and the student.  When they aren’t performing well, or aren’t dedicated to teaching, students lose out.
Eric Hanushek, a researcher from the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, noticed that students in the United States who had high-performing teachers progressed through their curriculum three times faster, completing 150 percent of the curriculum. Students with low-performing teachers, on the other hand, only managed to cover 50 percent of their curriculum by the end of the year.
There is a dearth of talent in the teaching profession these days, which I attribute mostly to a decline in the coolness factor of the teaching profession. Over the years, teaching has gone from a job to which students aspire, to a job students merely settle for when they can’t find something better.
I’ve seen a similar problem occurring in my home country, Malaysia. Thirty-odd years ago, you could ask a class of pupils in any elementary school what their ambition was and “teacher” would have been the most common answer. But try that in today’s classrooms and you would struggle to find one among the sea of “doctor,” “engineer” and “investment banker.”
However, not everyone can be doctors, engineers and investment bankers. In Malaysia, it’s those students who don’t make the cut who end up flowing into the schools as teachers. Stuck in a job they see themselves as settling for, it’s no wonder they bring a pessimistic attitude into class.
One could argue that it would be easy to reward the high-performing teachers with pay raises, thereby motivating the lower-performing teachers to do better. While this idea has its merits, it also poses a myriad of other problems, including how to evaluate teachers in comparison with their colleagues, what methodology of testing can be used to evaluate a class and whether tests can accurately measure performance inside a classroom.
However, cutting to the core of the issue, schools need better teachers if they are to become centers of knowledge. Teachers who are not only dedicated and courageous but also kind and understanding, teachers whose passion it is to see their students succeed.
A relic of a bygone era, tracking is a process that divides the student body into parts that are expected to join different strata of society. Sorting students based on some measure of capability, with the higher tracks covering material at a faster and more rigorous pace, is one method. Initiated in the United States in the 1950s, tracking was originally meant to provide a strong workforce to fill the various vacancies left after the war.
At that time, only 20 percent of high school graduates were admitted into a four-year college, while 20 percent more entered skill-based jobs like accounting and administration. The remaining 60 percent would have become workers in factories, retail or agriculture.
Fifty years from its establishment, tracking has stayed the same, but the world has become a very different place. In 2009, at the height of the economic crisis in the United States, unemployment figures hit the double digits, but high-tech employers like Oracle were still struggling to find qualified employees.
Today’s world is no longer a place where 60 percent of high school students can afford not to go to college. Whether every student should go to college is a different topic for a different day, but as the U.S. and world economies continue to grow, it is inevitable that more and more jobs will start requiring some form of tertiary education.
Malaysia has a similar dearth of employable undergraduates, largely stemming from an education system that streams students into tracks based on their performance in our national public exams. Students who get above a B- average are generally placed in the science stream while other students get put into an arts stream to study literature or visual arts.
Tracking is bad in two ways: First, it disadvantages students who want to pursue a more rigorous field because if he or she is in a lower track, they will more likely than not graduate high school without the skills to study at the college level, and second (this is more evident in Malaysia), it creates preconceptions in the minds of teachers and students about each track and the capabilities of the students in it.
Tests are a hard topic to consider. On one hand, testing is important because we need a benchmark in order to measure and subsequently improve on the approach to education. Testing also serves as a good tool for testing weaknesses in a system to make sure that no students are neglected.
However, there is also a huge debate on whether tests are an accurate measure of knowledge. Should measurement of a student’s understanding of a topic really be measured by how well they are able to regurgitate information they have learned? And if not, how do we measure student performance?
The answers to these questions are not simple. However, they are the questions we must ask when thinking about testing in a holistic manner.
As I mentioned earlier, comprehensive testing would create a benchmark to evaluate teachers better. Accurate evaluations would recognize high-performing teachers, provide them pay raises, and thus motivate low-performing teachers to up their game. Seems like a pretty good way to boost the quality of teaching.
This approach is currently practiced in the school systems of Malaysia. Simply put, the higher the class as a collective achieves, the higher the reward for the teacher. Consequently, if the class is consistently low in performance, there is also the risk that the teacher’s pay may be docked. However, the problem with such a system is that, because the stakes involved are so high, some teachers have actually gamed the system by providing the answers of a quiz on the blackboard during the testing period.
So, perhaps no testing is the better alternative then? It isn’t so clear either, for without tests, teachers and parents are unable to monitor how well a child is understanding the lessons taught, and this would make it much harder to provide support and remedial action for student who might need it. Furthermore, testing does help with identifying student’s strengths as well as weaknesses, and can sometimes be an indicator of students’ future career interests.
I’d like to put out a few ideas on ways I believe these problems can be solved.
First off, teachers have to start being treated as employees. What I mean by this is that teachers should be held accountable for their performance. I disagree with the concept of ‘tenure’ for elementary, middle and high school teachers, as tenure was originally created to protect university professors from being fired for political or petty reasons. Generally, schoolteachers are not exposed to this risk.
If you have an employee in your company that is not performing, and is actually harming your clients, you fire that employee, so why should we not have the same view for teachers? I feel that looking at teachers as assets, as well as employees, will make sure that the lower-performing teachers keep on their toes while sending a message that performance is recognized.
Also, more corporate leaders should take some time out to teach. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, even investment bankers, should all spend some time passing their experience, knowledge and stories on to the next generation, because not only will that provide insight for students, but it will also help them think about their career paths and what they like to do from an early age. It will also bring the coolness factor back to being a teacher and help draw more talent to this starved industry.
On tracking, my opinion is that it just should not be practiced. Plain and simple, the only way to ensure a level playing field for everyone to be given the same opportunities to succeed in school. Having a system that tracks students based on grades, or even more arbitrary measures, runs contrary to the ideal of education as a means for students to achieve greatness no matter their background.
With regard to testing, more thought needs to be put into a more holistic way of measuring student performance. The GPA system is pretty good in that it measures consistency as well as achievement, thus reducing the “I’ll cram at the last moment, and still get an A” mentality. However, with some thought, it could be improved so that it can be standardized and benchmarked against other school systems, and possibly other education systems around the world as well.
Education is paramount. It enables dreams to come true. It empowers families to break the cycle of poverty, and it allows tolerance and understanding to be fostered across the world. Something so important must be given every resource and every allowance available. For if the life of a student is valuable, then the future life of that student is infinitely more valuable, and education is how that future becomes a reality.
Asyrique Asyraf Thevendran is deputy features editor. Email him at 
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