Education in Asia: A region at risk?

What’s up with the food fights? On May 30, a message, make that missile, consisting of white bread, salami and “a butter-like spread” was launched at former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard—video footage suggests a narrow miss—as she toured Australian schools to promote an education-reform agenda that, in part, proposed more funds for secondary education at the expense of tertiary education.

The missive followed a May 8 incident when a vegemite sandwich-wielding high school student also took aim at the former prime minister and her National Education Reform Agreement.


Sandwiches and jokes aside, discussions on how best to reform education—a debate going on for decades—are important and relevant across the world, including the Philippines.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” a landmark report that chronicled the sad state of the United States education system.


Released in 1983, the report was a clarion call, documenting even way back then how US students were woefully underperforming academically.

Global relevance

Three decades on, many of the report’s findings are still relevant in the US. More surprisingly, they also have relevance globally, particularly in parts of Asia, despite the region’s tremendous economic success in recent years.

Indeed, Asia’s parents and policy makers may well see their own region at risk, with education systems failing to create graduates prepared for changing economies. This despite student test scores and stereotypes often used to illustrate a storyline of Asia’s rise and increasing success, particularly in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

In the 1980s, declining test scores, increasing illiteracy and inadequately trained teachers were the symptoms of a US educational system in crisis. “A rising tide of mediocrity,” it was said, threatened the country’s “very future as a nation and a people.”

The report concluded that the product of this broken system was a workforce ill-equipped to maintain the US technological and economic lead.

As the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) anxiously prepare for the increased competition for jobs and investment that may well come with the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in late 2015, and as they and other nations come to terms with a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive and interconnected world, more and more of their citizens are understandably worried about the shortcomings of their own educational systems.


In the US, the 1983 report put education reform on the national agenda. Local, state and federal reform efforts followed—albeit with mixed results—and continue to this day.  President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program and President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative are the latest examples.

Racing for value-added model

Today, from India to the Philippines, nations are in a race to move beyond the current economic model of low-end, export-orientated manufacturing and climb the value-added supply chain.

Greater profits, job creation and a higher standard of living beckon.  Achieving this, however, will require an educated, skilled workforce able to design and manufacture increasingly technologically advanced products.

Here again, observers have found a similarity in the response of 1980s America and parts of present-day Asia.  The first impulse was to focus on increasing educational funding and resources. Some hoped a “Commodore 64” computer on every American student’s desk would lead to better-educated students. But educational reform needs to be much more than about money spent.

In Thailand, a government initiative to provide tablet computers to students is being lauded by some as a panacea. Others have focused on an effort to close small schools, arguing that bigger, better-funded educational programs are the answer.

Unfortunately, years of increased educational funding in the US have not gotten the results expected. This is an important lesson that developed and developing nations might also take to heart.

The World Bank’s 2012 World Development Indicators show that US public expenditure on education as a percentage of its gross development product (GDP) is 5.4 percent.

Yet, scores from the most recent Program for International Student Assessment have US students failing to break into the Top 10 in the subjects tested. US students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading comprehension.

Singapore spends less on education than the US, 3.3 percent of GDP, but punches well above its weight. It ranks second in math, fourth in science and fifth in reading comprehension.

It might be unfair to compare the US, a nation of 315 million, with Singapore, a small nation state of only 5 million. Yet, whether large or small, nations must recognize that simply providing additional funds for education will not automatically produce “smarter” students.

Take the example of Malaysia, which spends 5.1 percent of its GDP on education. Despite this level of funding, one of the highest in Asean, standardized math and science test scores have actually decreased, according to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

More funding not enough

Whether in the US or Asia, increases in educational funding need to be accompanied by an innovative curriculum with a large dose of accountability on the part of all stakeholders, including government leaders, education administrators, teachers, parents and students. Barriers to change must be removed.

Pockets of innovation and change certainly already exist and should be spotlighted and nurtured. Long-standing bureaucracies, hierarchies and traditions should not prevent innovative new pilot programs focused on educating today’s children for tomorrow from moving forward.

One example is the Mechai Pattana School, the brainchild of well-known social entrepreneur Mechai Viravaidya, in Thailand’s Chonburi province.

The school and the larger Bamboo School in Buriram province are a collaborative partnership among educators, parents, students and the public and private sectors aimed at providing a holistic, interactive education to at-risk children.

More funds may well be part of a solution to the problem of broken education systems and institutions living in the past. Burma’s education system is a case in point.

But policy makers should also learn from the US and other countries that tried but failed to spend their way out of mediocrity into excellence.

So, whether you are serving up, taking part or simply avoiding the latest sandwich to come your way in a tour of a nation’s schools and cafeterias, it is worth pausing before rushing to increase educational budgets without paying serious attention to what sort of reforms and results that money will buy.

Curtis S. Chin served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (2007-2010). He is a senior fellow at the Asian Institute of Technology and a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group.

Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia.  Follow him on Twitter @josebcollazo.

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TAGS: Asia, Education, educational reforms, Learning
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