Give a Singaporean school student a three-tier test on any subject, and 95 times out of 100 they will be able to answer the intermediate and advanced questions, says Musliar Kasim, Indonesia’s deputy minister of education.
But give the same test to an Indonesian student, and they won’t be able to go beyond the basic questions.
That, says Musliar, sums up the quality of the national school curricula for primary and secondary education, and how far it lags behind international standards.
“The curricula that we have now for primary, junior high and senior high school are very different from what is tested on at the international level, which leaves us far behind the likes of Singapore and Taiwan,” he said on Saturday.
While students abroad are getting a head start on mathematics and science learning, he went on, Indonesian students were stuck studying subjects of dubious importance.
He cited the case of the curriculum for fourth-graders, which includes a civics class that requires students to memorize the organizational structure of village and ward offices, as well as the names of government institutions.
“That’s why the Education Ministry has drawn up new school curricula for 2013 that will replace the curricula that we’ve been using for years,” Musliar said.
He added that the new curricula, which took several months to compile, was aligned more closely to international education standards.
“With the new curricula, we hope to boost the competency that our students have lost,” he said.
Indonesian students’ low standing on the global scale has been widely noted in a range of assessments. In December, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study gave Indonesia a failing grade for the math and science aptitude of its eighth-grade students.
This key international assessment showed that Indonesian students in this age group scored an average 406 points for science and 386 points for math, against a world baseline score of 500. The scores put Indonesia in 38th place out of 42 countries for math, and 40th out of 42 for science.
That left the country trailing not just neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, but also falling behind Palestine and Iran in both streams, as well as Syria in the science stream. It also pointed to Indonesia’s steadily declining scores since the 2003 TIMSS.
The new curricula designed to address this will go into force at the start of the new school year this July.
A key change is that the curriculum for each grade will be the same across all public schools nationwide, whereas the current one varies by region.
Musliar said the reason for the variation was because not all schools had access to the latest textbooks prescribed in the curriculum, and hence were left using textbooks that were several years old.
The new curricula, particularly for primary schools, were widely panned by educators and experts when it was first unveiled in December.
Critics contended that the idea of dropping science and social studies from the curricula and integrating the two subjects into Indonesian language classes made no sense, and argued that they should have been merged with similar subjects.
The Indonesian Teachers Union Federation (FSGI) criticized the elimination of information technology and communications (TIK), a subject that was recently created by the government, pointing out that hundreds of candidate teachers who had undergone TIK training had effectively wasted their time.
The Education Ministry has argued that the current primary school curriculum is putting too much strain on students, and that it is looking to limit subjects taught in elementary schools to just six, eliminating science, social studies and English.
The new curriculum would contain religion, nationalism, Indonesian language, math, arts and sports.
But despite its argument that the new curriculum would be less of a burden on students, the ministry decided to increase school hours to 38 per week from 32.
Education Minister Mohammad Nuh revealed on Thursday that the cost for drawing up and implementing the new curricula amounted to Rp 2.49 trillion ($257 million), and would include training programs for teachers, printing of new textbooks and a monitoring program to see how the new system was working out.
The teacher training will begin next month, ahead of the implementation of the new curricula in July. However, while all junior and senior high schools will have to use the new curricula later this year, only 30 percent of primary schools is expected to adopt it.
The government says this is because of the difficulty in getting all primary schools, which outnumber other types of schools, ready to comply with the new standards.
Nuh said the biggest chunk of the budget, or around Rp 1.2 trillion, would go toward new textbooks, while the next biggest cost, Rp 1.09 trillion, would be for the teacher training program.
Musliar said that ultimately, the new curricula were designed to get students motivated about learning.
He added that under the current school system, students had an apathy or dislike for doing homework and for school in general, and were always looking forward to the holidays.
“There’s this expression that goes ‘I hate Mondays,’ because the students feel overburdened by their classes,” he said.
“It’s completely different to the situation in Singapore, where the students are always enthusiastic to get back to school after their holidays.”