The State of the Nation: Deep assessment needed to correctly target remedial action on Covid-19 learning loss

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 22, 2021 - November 28, 2021.
Children living in DBKL low-cost flats would benefit from policies that boost learning outcomes and aid upward social mobility. (Photo by UNICEF & UNFPA Families on The Edge report (Part1) August 2020)

Children living in DBKL low-cost flats would benefit from policies that boost learning outcomes and aid upward social mobility. (Photo by UNICEF & UNFPA Families on The Edge report (Part1) August 2020)

-A +A

SENIOR Education Minister Datuk Mohd Radzi Md Jidin reminded members of parliament on Nov 15 that, at RM52.63 billion or 16% of Budget 2022, the allocation to his ministry is among the highest in the recently tabled federal government budget. The sizeable allocation, he adds, reflects greater responsibility in ensuring that every sen is efficiently spent to achieve optimum impact for the development of the country’s education system and the running of the various educational institutions under the ministry.

Indeed, apart from the Treasury or the Ministry of Finance, no other ministry has a bigger overall allocation (operating and development expenditure) under Budget 2022. In fact, including the RM14.47 billion allocated to the Ministry of Higher Education for 2022, the combined allocation for both ministries would reach RM67.1 billion or one-fifth of Budget 2022. As pointed out by studies commissioned on the local education system, size of funding alone does not guarantee the desired learning outcomes aspired to by a country like Malaysia, that is on the cusp of becoming a high-income developed nation.

For the record, emoluments under the Ministry of Education alone account for RM40.3 billion or 76.7% of the RM52.63 billion allocation under Budget 2022, similar to the RM38.9 billion or 77.3% of the RM50.36 billion estimate under Budget 2021.

Included under operating expenditure for both years is RM1.5 billion for hostel food assistance, about RM300 million for additional meal programmes (Rancangan Makanan Tambahan) and RM89 million for pre-school meals.

Development expenditure, meanwhile, accounts for RM5.03 billion or 10.6% of the total allocation for 2022, versus RM3.09 billion or 6.1% for 2021, expenditure estimates show.

Big data analytics

The most pressing question in the post-Covid environment is the extent of learning loss experienced by students in lower-income families after schools had to be shut during the pandemic. Globally, the United Nations (UN) estimates that about 1.5 billion children could not go to school due to Covid-19 — with at least a third not having access to remote learning.

In Indonesia, its Minister of Education, Culture, Research and Technology Nadiem Anwar Makarim says big data is being collected via a National Assessment to gauge students’ literacy, numeracy as well as well-being to help policymakers determine the proper action plan to close the inequality gap between the haves and have nots. (See “Gojek founder-turned-education minister shares Indonesia’s big-data-led ‘leaps’ in education” on page 66.)

The lack of proper devices and stable internet connectivity for effective online learning is an issue among the urban poor in Malaysia as well, going by findings in the “Families on The Edge” surveys of dwellers of Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) low-cost flats by two UN-related agencies (UNICEF and UNFPA) last year with DM Analytics.

It is perhaps with students like them in mind that Budget 2022 allocated RM450 million (with additional RM65 million commitments from telecom companies) to give some 600,000 students in higher learning institutions from the bottom 40% (B40) families a free tablet through the PerantiSiswa Keluarga Malaysia initiative.

Pending a more extensive rollout of enabling digital infrastructure to cover most of the populated areas nationwide under the MyDIGITAL initiative to enable more effective digitisation of the country and economy, Malaysia also attempted to utilise free-to-air TV (DidikTV) to deliver lessons to students during the lockdown to make up for the lack of device and internet connectivity, but not without compromising on the quality of teaching. That is in addition to initiatives like [email protected] and Digital Educational Learning Initiatives Malaysia (DELIMa).

Now that schools have reopened, Maszlee Malik, the education minister under the previous Pakatan Harapan administration, is among those calling for a thorough review of the matter so that necessary remedial action can be taken fast.

He was told that impact assessments are being done, when he asked about the matter last week. When speaking to The Edge in August to stress on the need to set up a National Education Action Council, Maszlee was much harsher: “Hitherto, the government is [taking] a business-as-usual attitude despite calamities ahead.”

Barely a fortnight from his appointment as chairman of the nine-member Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Education on Nov 5, the Simpang Renggam member of parliament (independent) told The Edge last week that he and his colleagues want to “revisit the National Education Policy Review Committee (JKD) report”, adding that the Education Blueprint (2013-2025) needs to be updated for the post-Covid-19 world. In the same vein, performance indicators measured by the Education Performance and Delivery Unit (PADU) too would need to take into account the impact of Covid-19, including extended lockdowns, on students’ academic progress and well-being.

Among targets under the recently tabled 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) is the boosting of graduate employability with higher wages and for Malaysia to be at least on par with international average scores measured under the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by 2025.

In the last triennial PISA survey of 15-year-old students to assess the extent to which they have acquired key knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society — with a focus on proficiency in reading, mathematics, science and an innovation domain — and student’s general well-being, students in Malaysia scored lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in reading, maths and science. According to excerpts from the PISA 2018 report, only 54% of students attained at least so-called Level 2 proficiency in reading — to identify the main idea in a text of moderate length and find information based on explicit criteria — significantly below the OECD average of 77%. Only a “negligible” number of students are deemed advanced, compared with more than 10% in 20 education systems, including in 15 OECD countries.

In mathematics, only 59% attained at least Level 2 (OECD average: 76%), with only 2% scoring high marks (OECD average: 11%) and can model complex situations mathematically and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies to solve them. That compares with 44% in four cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang), 37% in Singapore, 29% in Hong Kong, 28% in Macau, 23% in Taiwan and 21% in South Korea.

Similarly, for science, only 63% attained at least Level 2 (OECD average: 78%) with only 1% scoring high marks to be able to creatively and autonomously apply knowledge about science to a wide variety of situations, including those unfamiliar to them.

The latest PISA assessment was supposed to have happened this year but was postponed to 2022 due to Covid-19. The outcome should provide some indication of the impact of school closures and online learning during the pandemic, but would not be enough on its own for policymakers here to develop an extensive action plan to counter any adverse effects on students, especially those from the lower-income group relying on better education outcomes for upward social mobility. A lot rests on officials in the Education Ministry tasked to assess the situation at hand to aid policy decisions.

 

Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.