The results for the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that were presented in early December showed that of the 10 countries that topped the performance, not one of them is a Muslim country. As a matter of fact, of the final results tabled, not one Muslim country was placed in the top 40.
Half a million pupils in 65 countries and local administrations were tested in the three core areas of mathematics, science and reading. Shanghai scored the best result with 613, followed by Singapore and Japan.
With the exception of Turkey which took the 43rd spot scoring the highest among the Muslim countries followed by UAE, of the rest of the Muslim countries that took part such as Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Qatar, Jordan, Tunisia and Indonesia, suffice to say that they were placed within the bottom 50 and 60 jostling with Columbia, Peru and Albania for the award of worst performer!
Before anyone jumps the gun by blaming this OECD study as essentially biased and Eurocentric, let us be reminded the top three performers are Asian. It is indeed noteworthy that the results for 2012, 2010, and the 2009 Assessment showed that Shanghai students scored the highest in all categories.
According to the OECD, this study considers Shanghai a pioneer of educational reform, having transformed their approach to education. Instead of focusing merely on the elite, it appears they have adopted a more inclusive system. In other words, the democratization of access to quality education is a key factor.
Below is the table for the 2012 results:
|Programme for International Student Assessment (2012)|
|1||Shanghai, China||613||1||Shanghai, China||580||1||Shanghai, China||570|
|2||Singapore||573||2||Hong Kong, China||555||2||Hong Kong, China||545|
|3||Hong Kong, China||561||3||Singapore||551||3||Singapore||542|
|5||South Korea||554||5||Finland||545||5||South Korea||536|
|16||Germany||514||16||Macau, China||521||16||Macau, China||509|
|23||New Zealand||500||23||Austria||506||23||United Kingdom||499|
|24||Czech Republic||499||24||Belgium||505||24||United States||498|
|26||United Kingdom||494||26||France||499||26||Czech Republic||493|
If we take ourselves off the intellectual pedestal, let us ask what lessons we can take home from this study, apart from other indicators in different studies.
Firstly, there is no basis for the conventional argument that because Muslim students have to attend extra classes for religious studies over and above the routine academic lessons in the schools, they have less time to study and prepare for exams and hence perform not as well as non-Muslim students. In Malaysia, for example, Chinese students who also attend extra classes for Chinese-based subjects over and above the national-type syllabus do just as well in both.
Pedagogy and quality of teaching
Finland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland were among the best of the European nations. Studies have shown that students from Finland produced very good results in various subjects when compared to students from the United States and other countries. This was attributed mainly to the fact that in Finland, the very best graduates were recruited to become teachers.
Also important is the question of content and curriculum, including pedagogy. The quality of teachers is a matter of concern. The teaching profession needs to be given greater priority by the state. A proper incentive scheme must be introduced and to restore the profession to its earlier recognition. As it stands, apart from infrastructure constraints, Muslim countries suffer from a shortage of good teachers. But the issues should be more than that just a question of material resources.
Spending on education
The conventional belief that greater spending on education would yield better performance was also shown to be not always true. Thus, the analysis of the 2003 results showed that Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Japan and South Korea, which had spent less on education than the United States actually did better. While this should not be taken as an excuse to spend less on education, allocation of such funds for Muslim countries must be beefed up with the rider that the resources are to be spent effectively.
The issue of governance remains a serious problem in Muslim countries. For example, cases of misappropriation of funds allocated for poorer students continue to be a source of embarrassment. Poor governance also breeds corruption which then leads to wastages and leakages. Where financial resources get mis-channelled or misused, schools suffer and students become victims.
Bad governance in the running of schools also impacts on the quality of teaching when for example school authorities haphazardly transfer teachers to other areas without considering the effect on both the teaching and the teachers themselves.
Yet another lesson is probably the obvious one considering that the top three performances are connected one way or the other to the Confucian model of learning. Surely, Muslim countries should be able to draw some lessons from this phenomenon. Muslim intellectuals worth their salt must get off their high horse and study the Confucian model, adapt it according to Muslim requirements, if need be, and start preaching a culture of diligence in the pursuit of knowledge. The defensive response about reminding people of Islam’s glorious history of learning and advancements in science serves no purpose if all it does is encourage us to rest on past laurels.
While it is known that Muslim countries are facing a crisis in higher education, this study is significant in showing that even in the formative mid-secondary school stage, we are seeing a crisis of alarming proportions. The fact of the matter is that Muslim countries are occupying the bottom rungs in higher education and advancement in science and technology. The PISA results are therefore a precursor to worse things to come.
Failure to take immediate remedial action may lead to a deeper crisis. In this regard, we call on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take the lead in addressing this problem.
27th December, 2013