Some home truths about education reforms

Focus, Normal

The National – Monday, December 6, 2010

Outcomes-based education (OBE), which is part of PNG’s education reform, has been a subject of much debate of late. Some quarters have called for it to be abolished, pointing to its failure in even developed countries like Australia, the US and Canada. Websites dedicated to the issue have surfaced. AARON HAYES, an experienced high school teacher and school psychologist who served in the standards wing of the Department of Education from 1997-2000, shares his views in this first part of a series of articles on the issue.


QUESTION: Are the education reforms really only about outcomes-based education (OBE)?
The home truth: No.
The education reforms have two components: structural reform and curriculum reform.
The structural reform was necessary because under the old system there was not enough room in the primary schools, high schools and national high schools to cater for the high demand for spaces.
Before the reform, primary schools taught Grades 1 to 6, high schools taught Grades 7 to 10 and the national high schools taught Grades 11 and 12.
Since the late 1990s, elementary schools have been created to cater for Grades 1 and 2 and primary schools began “topping up” with Grades 7 and 8.
Most high schools are now secondary schools taking Grades 9 through 12.
The curriculum reform is a separate process.
Q: Some people are saying that the structural reforms are not working. Should the structural reforms be reversed?
The home truth: No.
Some critics say that the elementary schools have poor facilities and that the teachers are largely untrained and so on.
They say that the primary schools were ill-prepared to take Grades 7 and 8 and do not have science laboratories and other necessary resources.
They say that the secondary schools do not have enough specialist teachers to take Grades 11 and 12 classes.
These are all valid criticisms but there was no choice at the time because the limited capacity of the old system was a ticking time bomb.
So far, the Education Department has done quite a good job of implementing the structural reforms.
Elementary teacher training is in full swing and basic resource kits for the elementary schools have been distributed.
Primary school teachers have adapted to teaching Grades 7 and 8 classes and many schools have projects under way to upgrade their facilities.
Secondary schools are now attracting the best graduate teachers because they have better funding and better students than the national high schools.
Best of all, many thousands more young Papua New Guineans are now still in the school system instead of getting pushed out after Grade 6 or Grade 10 as before.
Reversing the structural reform now would not make any sense.
Q: Is the teaching of tokples in elementary schools the cause of poor English standards in our primary and high schools students?
The home truth: Probably not.
Despite widespread criticism, the bridging to English initiative of the PNG education reforms has a strong research basis.
Overseas research shows that young children learn foreign languages better if they first learn to read and write in their mother tongue and gain a firm grasp of basic literacy skills like phonetic spelling.
Trying to learn how to read and write at the same time as trying to learn a foreign language is very difficult and many children in PNG village schools simply cannot cope.
This is where the road to educational failure starts for these children, right back in the early years, struggling to learn to read and write in English while they are only speaking tokples or tok pisin at home.
We need to continue supporting the Bridging to English programme until any research proves that it is not working in PNG as it does overseas.
So far, our university researchers seem to have been sitting on their hands and not doing much research on this area.
We also need research data to tell us whether it is indeed true that the standard of English in our primary and high schools is dropping, or whether it is just a false impression.
PNG parents have been bemoaning the poor English of their children for the past 50 years. It is not a new complaint.
One way to answer this question would be to compare the test results of students today on an identical literacy test taken by students prior to the reforms.
The guidance section of the Education Department should be able to provide such data from the standardised aptitude testing programme they have been using in secondary schools since the year 2000 with the differential aptitude tests (DAT).
A sample of students today could be tested on the DAT verbal and literacy tests and compared with a matched sample of students from 2000 to see if the average score is significantly better or worse.
If such statistics show that the standard of English literacy is in fact dropping then it still does not prove that the tokples bridging to English policy is to blame. There are other possible causes.
For a start, the reforms have opened the floodgates to students of much lower academic ability who would never have made it past Grade 6 before the reforms.
These lower-ability students are bound to show slower progress in acquiring language skills no matter if they are first taught in tokples, tok pisin or English.
Also, the strain on the teachers and the resources of primary schools due to more students, larger class sizes, and a cumbersome new OBE curriculum may also be affecting the progress of students towards acquiring English skills.
School libraries for example now have to share the same number of reading books among more and more students.
Wide reading is one of the most powerful activities that help students improve their English, so it would not be surprising if the lack of library books alone is having a major impact on English literacy in schools.
There have been many changes going on at the same time since the education reforms began, and it will require some very fancy multivariate statistics to point the finger at the real factors affecting students’ English language development.
Q: Are the national high schools still the elite schools for the best Grade 10 leavers?
The home truth: No.
This was true in the past but no longer.
The official selection policy now is that the secondary schools get first pick of the top Grade 10 leavers in each province and the “leftovers” go to the national high schools.
This is why the academic standards and student behaviour in the national high schools have been deteriorating for the past 10 years since the secondary education reforms began.
Under the reform policy, the national high schools should now be redundant and were supposed to be handed over to the provinces in which they are located to be converted to secondary schools or other institutions under the provincial administrations.
This has not happened because the Education Department says that the national high schools are needed to cater for students from various provinces like Gulf and Southern Highlands that do not have enough Grades 11 and 12 spaces in their secondary schools.
However, the national high schools are very expensive to keep operating because they have to pay airfares for “leftover” students from all over the country to fly in and out.
These airfares use up all the money that should be spent on maintenance.
A recent plan to turn the national high schools into “schools of excellence” will cost even more money that the Education Department can ill afford.
The NHS are run-down and riddled with cult behaviour. 
It would take 10 years and a ridiculous amount of money to upgrade them to “excellence” status and even that would not get rid of all the entrenched cult traditions that drag the students down in these schools.
Moreover, taking the best students (and teachers) out of the provincial secondary schools will only result in lower standards and lower mean rating indices in all the secondary schools.
It is time for the Education Department to follow its own reform policy and hand over the national high schools to the provinces.