Forget About Literacy Ranking, Focus on What Really Matters

Lintang, a mathematical genius, cycles 24 miles across crocodile-infested swampland to get to school. As he arrives, his friend, Mahar immerses himself into mysticism and the supernatural world. Haran sits, smiling happily, in class even though he doesn’t understand a word of the book he read; and Ikal, breathes a sigh of relief when the tenth child the school needs to remain operational appears at enrolment at the last minute, saving him from being sent to work as a labourer for the miners or fishermen to supplement his family’s meager income. In their one-room schoolhouse, the holes in the roof are so big that students can see planes flying overhead.

Ikal and his ten classmates, who call themselves “the rainbow troops,” attend the only free school in the poorest part of Belitung Island. “The Rainbow Troops” is a remarkable novel by Andrea Hirata who once promised his schoolteacher he would write a book in her honor. Inspired by Hirata’s own childhood experiences, this is the poignant story of ten young children from among the islands poorest families, and their struggle to gain the education they are guaranteed under Indonesian law. They think that graduating from sixth grade is considered a pinnacle achievement. These kids know that education is the key to breaking the cycle of illiteracy and hard labor that runs through their families.

Their school condition is contrary to the schools in Jakarta or other big cities in Indonesia. The story illustrates how improving the Indonesia education system needs extraordinary political will and collaboration between the government, academics and business. Indonesia has one of the largest school education systems in the world, serving over 50 million students across 34 provinces and more than 500 districts. The country consists of thousands of islands spanning over 3000 miles from east to west, making service delivery quite challenging.

A study conducted by Central Connecticut State University analyzes trends in literate behavior and literacy in more than 60 countries; it found that Nordic countries are among the most literate in the world and puts Indonesia at 60th outperforming only Botswana. The other Asian countries such as S. Korea rank 22nd, Singapore ranks 36th; Malaysia 53rd, and Thailand 59th. The rankings are based on five categories standing as indicators of the literate health of nations: libraries, newspapers, computers, education inputs such as years of schooling and public expenditure on education, and lastly education outputs such as The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) & The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results.

This is not the only survey that puts Indonesia as a low performing country in the world. Other educational survey such as by OECD also shows similar results. As I’m pursuing a master’s of educational studies at the University of Michigan, I decided to investigate this topic. I want to understand why Indonesian education performed relatively worse compared to the developed nations and our neighbor countries. What I learned is, it took much harder work than expected, but let me share my findings and hypothesis for the time being.

I would argue that if we want to improve the education system, we need to focus on what really matters, developing competence in teaching, and we need to put learners at the center-piece of our education system. Forget about literacy ranking for the time being. If we carefully analyze the five criteria, how can Indonesia ever compete with the abundant resources of newspapers, libraries and computers of developed nations with a long history of literacy? On the education inputs criteria such as years of schooling, Indonesia needs to focus on providing accessible and affordable education for all so that no individual will be left behind. Education outputs is the result of all initiatives hence this is not a factor that we can control.

To understand the current state of Indonesian education, we need to take a careful look at economic, social, and historical contexts. I begin by describing the significant periods of Indonesian education. It started from the development of education in Indonesia which has been influenced by religious or traditional principles, the interests of the ruling powers, and the spirit of sovereignty as a nation. During the Dutch Colonial period for 350 years, education was aimed only at a particular group of people via school classification based on descent and social status. The selective stratification was intended to generate elite classes and obedient educated human resources. After the Dutch regime collapsed, the Japanese took over and school was aimed for military and workers training. After Indonesia independence in August 1945, Indonesia started to develop its education system.

The monetary crisis at the end of the 1990s hit hard on the education system and triggered public awareness about reforming the centralistic regime as part of demands for a democratic and just society. In this “Reform Order”, there were two new regulations relevant to the future of the national education system: regional autonomy, and a minimum of 20 percent of state budgets earmarked for education.

Socioeconomics is an important factor. There is little doubt that a strong relationship exists between socioeconomics (SES) status and literacy, regardless of how either is measured. Whether SES is operationally defined in terms of income, social/cultural capital, or some other metric, there is almost always a strong positive correlation with literacy, whether indexed by test scores or the presence of numerous other literate behaviors. Some portion of the relationship may be causal, but a portion can be attributed to variables that impact both.

What are the top performing countries doing? Nations that have steeply improved their students’ achievement, such as Finland, Korea, Singapore, attribute much of their success to their focused investments in teacher preparation and development and creating an infrastructure that can routinely recruit and prepare teachers effectively. These nations realize that, without a comprehensive framework for developing strong teaching, new resources in the system are less effective than they otherwise would be: reforms are poorly implemented where faculty and leaders lack the capacity to put them into action. Of course this is not the only solution. I understand the importance of leadership, policy, and budget at the national to district level. By focusing on what matters most: improving educators’ capabilities and emphasizing on learners’ outcomes, only then can we ensure that children like Ikal and his classmates no longer have to struggle to get the education that is their right.