First published in The Jakarta Post, February 12, 2005
TUG OF WAR BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC OVER NATIONAL EXAMINATIONS
Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta
The plan to institute National Final Examinations has drawn criticism from many education observers who are baffled as to why the central government is insisting on them while at the same time an independent national body to implement standardization has yet been established.
The national examinations are also perceived to be against the National Education System Law (No. 20/2003), which sets out the rights of teachers to evaluate their students. Many also accuse the central government of trying to impose recentralizion by the back door -- something that would clearly be inconsistent with the spirit of decentralization as part of which local authorities have been given substantial powers over education under Law No. 22/1999. Worse still, only three subjects will be examined -- Bahasa Indonesia, English and Mathematics, and the examinations are to be in multiple choice rather than essay format, prompting fears that the new tests will fail to measure students' real cognitive abilities.
The central government, backed mostly by its own surveys and studies, argues that the national examinations are needed for the sake of standardization, even during the transition period until such time as the regulations on national education standardization have been finalized.
Consequently, there is apprehension that schools will have to provide extra tutoring for students merely for the sake of passing the tests, while other schools might upgrade their students' performance for the sake of maintaining or polishing up the school's image.
There is not doubt that we need a standardized system that is capable of ensuring quality education. However, all the stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and educationalists, should be extensively consulted. Local participation should not be damaged by the desire to "standardize". Democracy cannot not be put back in the box as it has already penetrated into all fields of life. The government cannot just ignore what has been agreed with the stakeholders.
What is clear, however, is the fact that the central government is becoming increasingly reluctant to devolve its powers to the local level. There is a tug of war underway involving the stakeholders -- particularly between the central government and local government -- regarding the implementation of decentralization in education. The center wants to get its powers back, while the local governments want more powers. A perusal of the literature on decentralization around the world reveals that this kind of chaotic situation has arisen in many countries and is, actually, quite predictable.
For example, Hans Weiller (1990) in his classic arguments regarding "compensatory legitimation" implies that education decentralization is mainly motivated by the need to reinforce the legitimacy of the central authority. In the light of the failure of centralized education systems and the popularity of the notion of increased local participation, a move to devolve powers to the local level is normally popular and serves as effective insulation amidst conflictual circumstances.
What normally happens then is that the central government finds that it has lost too much power. At the same time, legitimacy is eroded as many shortcomings became apparent after the dust of euphoria has settled. As Weiller argues, the central authorities might be prompted to conduct an evaluation of what has been done so as to ascertain whether things such as a "certain degree of homogeneity" are still intact. Sections within the center, whose power was severely curtailed by decentralization, might be eager to use this opportunity to resurrect their lost "glory days".
All of this only serves to confirm that education is always closely linked to politics. E. B. Fiske (1996) describes the political aspects of education as follows: "Embodiments of national values"; "a source of political power"; "vehicle for exercising power"; and "political weapons". This country serves as an excellent example of a place where education has always been politically misused from supporting autocratic regimes to serving as a cash cow for bureaucrats through their participation in lucrative projects.
Is it possible for us to restrain ourselves from abusing education and for once to put the interests of our young people first? Is it possible that we could treat education in a more civilized manner? As long as power is involved, however, it would seem that the answers to both these questions is "No". So who else can save our education system given that the bureaucrats are so preoccupied with amassing more power for themselves and competing to win lucrative projects, while ignoring the pedagogical aspects?
We might be skeptical, but we do not need to give up hope entirely. There is still a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. For example, the fact that we triumphed in International Science Olympiads abroad at least proves that we have not lost a generation despite the prolonged political misuse and abuse of our education system. All we can do is to nurture the students that show potential and encourage others to follow suit by affording as many educational opportunities for them as possible.
Given that our trust in the government has reached such a low ebb, it is timely for every responsible parent to begin seriously exploring and identifying the talents possessed by their children and to guide them in a proper, pedagogical way. Carefully selected formal and non-formal education, for example, can be constructive for the development of our children -- development that covers not only the cognitive but also the affective and psychomotoric aspects.
This spirit should be initiated and continuously nurtured at home, and could in the long run turn out to be far more successful than the instrumentalist approaches pursued by the state, which have always been contaminated with hefty doses of political trial and error.