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By Krithika Varagur
Indonesian students are among the lowest performers in Southeast Asia, according to a recent report, The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Indonesian 15-year-olds ranked in the bottom ten across 79 surveyed countries in all three subjects under consideration: math, reading, and science. The results point to education quality issues in the region’s most populous country.
“It’s a wake-up call for all of us in the education sector,” said Totok Amin Soefijanto, a policy expert at Paramadina University in Jakarta.
Indonesia’s so-called demographic dividend, meaning its proportionally large youth population in a country of over 260 million, holds considerable potential for economic growth, but it is diminished by its low educational achievement to date.
Poorly qualified teachers are a major problem. Sixty-five percent of students surveyed by PISA said their teachers rarely provided direct feedback to them. One in five teachers are regularly absent, according to the World Bank in 2017. The government has run teacher competency tests and in 2015, the average score for the nearly three million teachers who took it was 53 percent, according to an analysis by University of Melbourne professor Andrew Rosser.
“We have not repeated the competency assessment since 2015, which I think was another one of our mistakes, because if we don’t measure this, we don’t know where their skills are decreasing,” said Soefijanto.
Indonesian teachers also face chronically low salaries and are often appointed on the basis of cronyism or favor-trading, according to Rosser, which further decreases their competency.
Decentralization has been another challenge for improving education. Under the authoritarian regime of military general Suharto from 1965 to 1998, the school system was highly centralized. But after the regime ceded to a full democracy, Jakarta slowly yielded control of educational policy to regional governments. Given Indonesia’s geographic reach of over 15,000 islands, this spread has made it difficult to enforce things like standard curricula or teacher qualifications.
“We also have challenges when it comes to geographic inequities, as we have a lot of remote areas in the country,” said Jakarta-based social worker and activist Ryan Febrianto. “It’s a big country that has a lot of administrative areas, languages, and cultures, so what’s important is to develop policies that can accommodate that.”
Some recent advances
The OECD report itself notes that last year’s country results “must be seen in the context of the vast strides that Indonesia has made in increasing enrolment.” From 2001 to 2018, the PISA sample coverage leaped from 46 percent to 85 percent of 15-year-old students. According to the report’s authors, when accounting for the weakness of new entrants into a school system, the fact that Indonesia’s results have been relatively stable over this period actually indicates that “Indonesia has been able to raise the quality of its education system.”
Indonesia’s high-profile education minister, Nadiem Makarim, former CEO of the influential ride-hailing startup Go-Jek, told Indonesian newspaper Kompas that the PISA results “should not be packaged as good news” and called for a “paradigm shift” in educational standards. He announced this week that the country’s National Examination would be revamped as a Minimum Competency Assessment that tests students on math and literacy skills.
Weak core subjects
Math was a particularly sore subject for Indonesian students, with only one percent of them performing at the highest levels, compared to 44 percent in mainland China and 37 percent in Singapore, according to the report. The World Bank has also claimed that 55 percent of Indonesians who complete school are functionally illiterate.
In recent years, some resources have been redirected from core subjects to religious studies. Almost two-thirds of the country’s secondary schools are private and the majority (about 90%) of them are Islamic in nature. Students at religious boarding schools typically score lower than students at nonreligious schools on exams, according to one 2017 study.
It is worth noting that Indonesia may not lack absolute resources to fund education, but rather that its allocation deserves further review. The country spent about 3.6 percent of its GDP on education in 2015, somewhat lower than regional neighbors like Malaysia and Vietnam, but in accordance with a constitutional mandate to spend 20 percent of its national budget on education.
“In recent years, I think the government has been focusing on maintaining and improving enrollment levels as well as improving school facilities… but we [still] have issues in terms of quality improvement,” said Febrianto.
There is much low-hanging fruit for Indonesia’s education budget in coming years, from incentivizing absentee teachers to fine-tuning its domestic national examinations. In the meantime, there is one area in which Indonesian students already score undeniably high: 91 percent of them reported “sometimes or always feeling happy,” a full six points higher than the global average. (VOA)
Facebook says it plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to work on a new computing platform.
The company said in a blog post Sunday that those high-skilled workers will help build "the metaverse," a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality.
Facebook executives have been touting the metaverse as the next big thing after the mobile internet as they also contend with other matters such as antitrust crackdowns, the testimony of a whistleblowing former employee and concerns about how the company handles vaccine-related and political misinformation on its platform.
In a separate blog post Sunday, the company defended its approach to combating hate speech, in response to a Wall Street Journal article that examined the company's inability to detect and remove hateful and excessively violent posts. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Facebook, Metaverse, Augmented and Virtual Reality
As children, singing the rhyme Rock A Bye Baby was a fun thing to do. It was a statement of thrill and adventure to imagine a child climbing to the top of a tree and rocking to sleep. Especially in the Indian context, rocking a baby to sleep by attaching the cradle to the tree is quite a common thing. But the origin of this rhyme, or lullaby, seems rooted in other histories.
The most popular notion associated with this lullaby is of women leaving their babies tied to tree branches, rocking to sleep with the wind. It is believed that at the time this lullaby was written, it was inspired by a coloniser who saw the Native American women tie their children in birch bark cradles to the trees. The babies went to sleep rocked by the gusts of wind while the parents went about their tasks.
A Native American wooden cradle Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Another interpretation of the rhyme is that it is an allegory to Betty Kenny, or Kenyon, as some versions record it. The Kenyons were a tree-dwelling family, and they used to live in a yew tree. They had carved the tree branches to fit their babies and allowed them to nestle there during the day. The part of the rhyme that talks about falling off the tree is a little scary in this context, but the speculation is that the tree branches were quite low.
The final interpretation of the lullaby has political allusions. King James II of England, was the last Catholic king. He had no heir and reportedly used another baby to impersonate his own. But he was found out and exiled in the Glorious Revolution that took place after he was deposed. The act of falling down from the cradle is a metaphor for those who make mistakes from being overconfident or proud.
The many versions that exist of the rhyme/lullaby make it confusing to really know why it was written in such a strange and morbid manner. Each version points to a different time in history where certain practices were prevalent. However, despite all the various interpretations available, the lullaby itself works wonders in rocking babies to sleep, and perhaps that is the only reason it has survived.
Keywords: Lullaby, Rhyme, King James II, Kenyons, Native Americans, Colonisers
As kids growing up in different states, Shoba Narayan and Michael Maliakel shared a love of one favorite film — "Aladdin." Both are of Indian descent, and in the animated movie, they saw people who looked like them.
That shared love has gone full-circle this month as Narayan and Maliakel lead the Broadway company of the musical "Aladdin" out of the pandemic, playing Princess Jasmine and the hero from the title, respectively.
"Growing up, there was such little South Asian and Middle Eastern representation in the American media, and Princess Jasmine was really all I had. She was a huge role model to me as someone who was intelligent and strong and independent and beautifully curious, and that's who I wanted to be," says Narayan, who grew up in Pennsylvania.
The pair arrived at "Aladdin" in very different ways. Maliakel is making his Broadway debut, but Narayan is a musical theater veteran, having made her Broadway debut in "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812" and touring with "Hamilton" as Eliza Hamilton.
She was in "Wicked" as Nessarose when the pandemic shut down Broadway in March 2020. Her agent called in April with the prospect of auditioning for Jasmine. She sang "A Whole New World" over Zoom on gallery mode, pretending to be on a magic carpet. "It was a very unique experience," she says, laughing.
Disney producers flew her to New York to meet face-to-face and go through the material again. Narayan was asked to read with different Aladdin potential actors. She got the gig: "I went from a wicked witch to a Disney princess. Can't complain."
Maliakel, a native of New Jersey, came from the world of opera, a baritone who studied at Johns Hopkins University and the 2014 winner at the National Musical Theatre Competition. He trained his voice to be flexible, waiting for the right window to open.
"I didn't really see a lot of people doing what I wanted to do in the world," he says. "There just wasn't a whole lot of representation. So it's really hard to imagine yourself in those scenarios when you have no one to look up to as a role model or an example of how it could be done."
He played Porter and understudied Raoul in a national tour of "The Phantom of the Opera," which ended its run in Toronto just before the pandemic hit.
"I always dreamed that Broadway might happen someday," he says, laughing. "I'm just kind of dipping my toes into the waters in one of the biggest male roles in the business right now, and it's kind of surreal."
'Aladdin' featured as a Broadway Musical with a cast of Indian origin playing the main roles Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Broadway's "Aladdin" is a musical adaptation of the 1992 movie starring Robin Williams. The musical's story by Chad Beguelin hews close to the film: A street urchin finds a genie in a lamp and hopes to woo a princess while staying true to his values and away from palace intrigue.
Key Alan Menken songs from the film — including "Friend Like Me," ″Prince Ali" and "A Whole New World" — are used. The lyricists are the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin.
The show — and it's two new leads — had a few performances to celebrate Broadway's return from the pandemic this fall before it was forced to close for several days when breakthrough COVID-19 cases were detected. The actors say the safety of the cast, crew and audience are paramount and closing was the smart move.
"This is how we keep theater going in the pandemic," Maliakel says. "The other option is to just not do it at all. And that's not an option. A week's worth of lost performances, when we look back on things in a year or so, I think will just be a little blip on the radar."
They both look back with heart-thumping appreciation at the early performances when they welcomed back theater-starved audiences, who gave the company 3-minute standing ovations just for singing "A Whole New World."
"It is every brown girl's dream to be singing that song on an actual flying carpet," says Narayan. "And the fact that I got to do it on Broadway in the full costume with the lights and the 32-piece orchestra beneath me — oh, my gosh, I really had to hold it together. It was emotional overload for me."
Maliakel recalls that he and his brothers wore out their VHS cassette version of "Aladdin." He remembers having lunchboxes, pajamas and bed sheets with the film's theme. Aladdin was "every little brown kid's prince." Now he is that prince.
"Now, finally, to get to get paid to do it on the world's largest stage — it's not lost on me how crazy that is," he says. "The responsibility of my position right now feels really great. This moment sort of feels bigger than me in some ways, and I don't take that lightly. I think it's a really exciting time." (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Aladdin, Broadway, Musical, Indian Descendant cast,