Thursday, November 3, 2011

PPSMI Debate Ignores the Elephant in the Room

I read with interest the recent debates surrounding PPSMI, as played out in the mainstream and alternative media. Before we begin, a brief summary of the facts surrounding would help casual readers understand the issue better.

In 2003, the Education Ministry implemented a policy that Science and Mathematics subjects are to be taught in the English medium. This policy is known as PPSMI. In 2008, it was believed that the Education Ministry was reviewing the policy with the view of removing it. In the same year, the Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) was set up by concerned parents to persuade the Ministry to continue with the policy. In 2009, the Education Ministry decided that as of 2012, PPSMI would be abolished and the teaching of Science and Maths will revert to respective native language (ie. Bahasa Melayu, Tamil, Cina). Till today, the debate continues, with the volume intensifying in recent weeks led by PAGE.


In 19 Julai 2002, the Cabinet led by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, announced the implementation of PPSMI in 2003. The reason was that in order to improve the competitiveness of Malaysians in the global arena our students must be taught Maths and Science in English as most of the material on these subjects are in English.

My understanding of PAGE’s argument is the following: We must teach them Science and Maths in English because when they reach higher level, they would need less time to adapt to texts and materials which are, undoubtedly, written primarily in English (which in their term, is the lingua franca of Science and Maths). At the same time, some proponents have also argued that the policy would further bolster our children’s command of the English language.

And …well, that’s about it. Honestly, when I started finding out more about PPSMI, I was expecting to find a reservoir of studies showing a direct correlation between teaching Science and Maths in English and increased competency in the subject matter at the tertiary level (the main contention by proponents). Unfortunately, there was none – not even an indirect correlation. I was browsing through PAGE’s website  and blogno, there’s no research cited to support the cause for PPSMI either. 

More importantly, in my brief time with Mr. Google, I couldn't find any study or research that could support the teaching of Science, Maths or any other subject in a language that is NOT the mother tongue of the students and teachers. If there’s any, do let me know.

Wow. Think about that. A government policy was introduced, without proper research. Really, is that even possible? *insert sarcastic grin here*

Alas, ladies and gentleman, the evidence shows absolutely no correlation at all between children who are taught in English or their mother tongue with actual performance in tests.

Look at the 2010 World Education Ranking conducted by OECD. It measures competency in Reading, Maths and Science. The top 10 nation includes Shanghai-China (1st), Korea (2nd), Finland (3rd), Hong Kong-China (4th), Japan (8th) and Netherlands (10th) – all of which uses their respective mother tongue to teach all subjects. The ones in the top 10 who uses English as an education language are, surprise surprise, nations where the primary language is English (Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

And if English really is the lingua franca of Science and Maths that would hold such a huge competitive advantage for those who are taught in English, how come the United States are ranked a lowly 17th behind countries like Poland and Switzerland in the same study?

More worryingly, I don’t think any of the countries in the top 10 of OECD’s ranking uses a 2nd language as a primary education language for Science and Maths.  This is fact, not emotional pleading without basis. 

With all due respect to Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, who wrote a passionate letter to the Star the other day, claiming that "By rejecting the sound policy of PPSMI, we will be taking a regressive step backwards!", there is no evidence that PPSMI is anything but just shooting in the dark hoping to hit a dear.
The Effects of PPSMI

In 2007, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2007) research showed a marked decline in Malaysia’s score in Maths and Science. In fact, our decline was the most compared to the 59 other countries included in the research.(Wikipedia summary)

This was addressed in PAGE’s website via the misleadingly titled pamphlet Mengapa Rakyat Sokong PPSMI. Their argument was “that the survey was conducted on Form 2 students in 2007 whereas PPSMI was pioneered by Standard 1 students in 2003 (which means they’re only in Standard 5 so are not part of the survey). In fact this study further proves that the old policy (of teaching in BM) actually cause the decline”.

First of all, this is factually wrong. Officially, PPSMI was introduced to both Standard 1 students in Primary and Form 1 students in 2003. Therefore, the Form 2 students who were assessed in 2007 were taught Science and Maths in English.

Secondly, PAGE failed to address the following result of TIMSS research on Maths and Science in Malaysia: 1999 (519 for Maths, 492 for Science) – 2003 (508 for Maths, 510 for Science) – 2007 (474 for Maths, 471 for Science). Is it just a coincidence that in 1999 and 2003, all those who were analyzed was taught Science and Maths in BM?

In April 2008, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris published a report based on survey and research on Standard 5 students in 2007. The crux of the report states that the majority of students find it difficult to understand lessons in English, and the test scores back it up, with students, in particular Malays and Orang Asli, faring poorly.

This was also addressed by PAGE simply as “the general consensus was that the report is flawed as it did not follow scientific procedures in collecting data and is biased”. I guess no research is better than a less than perfect one?

So Why Not Let Them Choose?

Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon suggested that instead of abolishing PPSMI, students should be given an option to choose. Yes, the man everyone says is incompetent and weak comes out with this gem of an idea, and suddenly he’s right?

I cannot for one imagine how ridiculous this situation would be. If School A decides to adopt PPSMI, and because we cannot choose where we go to school, would my children then be forced to learn in English if they were “picked” to join School A? And if not, what do they do when the teacher is teaching in English? And why stop at just the choice of English? If it’s about choice, then certainly my kid can ask to be taught in Tamil. How about that?

It’s called a NATIONAL EDUCATION SYSTEM for a reason. Giving different language options, especially to Primary school-children, have never been done successfully anywhere else in the world. It’s akin to having a national highway code, but you can choose your speed limit because your car can go faster.  Sigh.

 If I Were To Argue for the Sake of Arguing…

If I were to argue, without facts, then I can state that teaching Science and Maths in English places extreme pressure on children of rural folks or even in urban areas where the primary language of communication is not English. This pressure might result in them not being interested in the subject matter at all. This is especially acute amongst poor (as in result, not income) and average students.

I can also state it would result in less effective teaching (if it can be any less effective;)) because Science and Maths teachers (especially the new ones tasked with Primary schools) would be too busy ensuring their English is correct, instead of focusing on the actual content of the subject matter.

Most importantly, there will be a widening competency gap amongst students of different social background.  Since we’re not using any studies to back up PPSMI, I can also suggest that English competency increase in tandem with your family’s household income. As such, not only do the better-off members of society have the benefit of being exposed to the English language, but they also have a better environment to excel academically, with tuition and learning aids readily available.

But the proponents of PPSMI fail to recognize the existence of a huge pocket of students even in urban areas whose English competency falls below the required level for them to even understand the lessons being taught.  This would result in a competency gap that in 10 years time will cause further social rift that threatens the fabric of our society. 

Politics over Future

Unfortunately, politicians have to enter the fray. It is no surprise that MCA's The Star have been highlighting the arguments FOR PPSMI without anyone offering anything substantial other than soundbites. Politicians suddenly appear asking for PPSMI to continue without telling us why. And sadly, PAGE recently stated that they are willing to voice their disappointment via the ballot box if the government does not bow down to their demand. How many people sign up for PAGE? How many people are in PERKASA? If we were to follow the argument then government should also quiver when faced wit PERKASA's threat, no?
Missing the Bigger Picture

Amidst all this noise about PPSMI, we have failed to notice bigger structural issues affecting the education system that must be corrected first. If PAGE is really about “action group for education” then I wonder why it is only focused on PPSMI?

For example, there have been studies showing the positive impact of a lower student to teacher ratio in improving test scores. Why not fight for that instead of a solution that is NOT backed by any research?

Why not fight for accountability from the school for the performance of its students with corresponding reward/punishment?

If English is of such a concern, why not fight for additional hours of English lessons and more importantly, using standardized scoring marks for English instead of allowing for a “bell curve assessment”?

Why not fight for a more stringent process to promote students to the next grade? This would prevent the comical situation where a kid enters Form 1 not even capable of mastering the basic 3M (Membaca, Menulis dan Mengira). Why do we keep pushing them to the next grade when they haven't pass the previous one?

What about our textbooks? What about our syllabus? These are all more pertinent than learning that trigonometri is actually trigonometry in English (Oh, imagine the confusion on my mind). 

And I have not even started with looking at society as a whole in the role of education. Studies have shown that children whose parents spend more time with their parents perform better at school. Go fight for that?

What about our own desire for wealth and success that has degraded the teaching profession to the point where parents never ask their kids, especially those who do well in exams, to become teachers? We can say “teachers are lousy” but that is the result of our own inner bias against the profession. Can PAGE help with that, because without the right teachers, it really doesn't matter what language you use to teach now, does it?

Anyway, I’m digressing. At the end of the day, I think the fight for PPSMI is taking its toll on our future because it prevents discussion of more pertinent issues. It’s like we’re busy trying to find the mouse, when there’s an elephant in the room. You know, like state-sponsored racial segregation via vernacular school. Funny no one is brave enough to fight against that.


This article was written by someone who was taught Science and Maths in Bahasa Malaysia. Pardon my London.