Stop corruption: Abolish the national exam

Gordon LaForge, Jakarta | Opinion | Thu, December 12 2013, 10:53 AM

In the Indonesian educational system, everybody cheats. Or at least that’s what I came to believe during nearly two years as a visiting English teacher in local high schools in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

During my first month in the classroom, I helped proctor an exam. As the co-teacher passed out the test, he read the rules: Do your own work, don’t cheat.

He then sat down, the exam began and the students promptly started cheating. They passed notes, talked across the aisle and even wrote on one another’s test papers.

Baffled, I looked to the teacher. He shrugged, as if to say, “It is what it is.”

It turned out that cheating in the school was common. Other teachers I knew placed in state, vocational and religious high schools from Aceh to Kupang, reported similar episodes at their sites. One teacher in Palembang recounted an instance in which he had caught students sharing answers during a test. When he threatened to punish them they just laughed in his face.

Granted, classroom norms vary from nation to nation and a foreigner could easily misconstrue cooperation for cheating. In Indonesia, education is more collaborative than it is in the United States, where learning is regarded as an individual pursuit. Nonetheless, by any definition, cheating in Indonesian schools is rampant.

As an outsider, my scope is limited. But during two years working with local students and educators, I saw that cheating wasn’t nourished by culture or character or anything inherent — but largely by a misguided policy: the high school national examination.

The Education and Culture Ministry recently won praise for canceling the exam in elementary schools, and it should ride that momentum to discard the high school one as well.

In a nation as diverse as Indonesia, it is brutally unfair to predicate graduation on a uniform, standardized test.

When it came time for my students to take the dreaded test, which every 12th grader in every province must pass to graduate high school, I snuck a peek at the English questions. They were advanced, at least relative to my students’ English abilities. If even half of them could pass the section, I would have been surprised.

Yet, somehow, they did pass; every one of them.

It turned out my school’s flawless performance was hardly abnormal. Last year, the education ministry reported that 99.48 percent of students nationwide passed the national exam. It brushed off allegations that cheating had occurred.

Corruption watchdogs have gathered non-circumstantial evidence of teachers and headmasters helping students cheat on the national exam. At one Jakarta high school, a teacher was caught selling the answer sheet to his students for Rp 35,000 (US$3) a pop.

Like the teacher in my high school classroom, few sharpen pitchforks over cheating — not as they do over state corruption, which, with a new suspect dragged into Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) headquarters each week, is apparently just as pervasive. With no massive losses to the state coffers, cheating seems a victimless crime.

But what most fail to realize is that one form of dishonesty begets the other, that the culture of corruption is learned in the high school classroom.

A recent article in The New Yorker by best-selling author and psychologist Maria Konnikova discussed the psychological causes and consequences of cheating in school.

She wrote: “When we cheat, we have a tendency to rationalize the behavior. We can’t change the past, so we change our attitude and justify our action.”

Cheating, researchers have found, is self-reinforcing. It gets easier each time you do it, and dishonest behavior is habit-forming.

It is paradoxical that dishonesty could flourish in Indonesia, where religion is pervasive, social rules governing manners and ethics are deeply ingrained and the education curriculum emphasizes behavior and morality as much as it does knowledge acquisition.

But research has shown the psychological effect of dishonest behavior may nullify moral conditioning. Citing a recent study from Harvard University, Konnikova wrote: “In both hypothetical scenarios and real-world tasks, people who behave dishonestly are more likely to become morally disengaged from their environment and to forget moral rules, such as honor codes”.

So schools can teach good ethical conduct every hour of every day, but when a student is copying an answer on a test — or when a government official is accepting a bribe — all of that learning is momentarily shut out by one’s engine of self-justification.

But for cheating, teachers and administrators don’t deserve the brunt of the blame. The pernicious national exam does. In a nation as diverse as Indonesia, it is brutally unfair to predicate graduation on a uniform, standardized test.

It expects students from high schools with collapsing roofs in Maluku or Kalimantan to be as competent as those from state-of-the-art private classrooms in Jakarta and Surabaya.

The pressure to pass the exam is immense — not just for the kids, but for teachers and principals who will lose face in the community and incite the ire of parents if they fail to pass their students. What choice is there but to cheat?

Providing education across the sprawling archipelago is not easy, and the education ministry deserves credit, especially for increasing access to schooling.

But the high school national exam is a failed policy that schools, and society, would be better off without.

The writer was a fellow in a bilateral educational exchange program. The views expressed are his own.

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Hooking young readers to keep print media going

Warief Djajanto Basorie, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, November 30 2013, 11:40 AM

More people are accessing online media for their news. Can the print media still survive and thrive?

Jawa Pos, the major daily in East Java, emphatically states it can. The key is to engage young readers. Azrul Ananda, president director of Jawa Pos, said this in a media-marketing forum titled “Audience engagement, challenges and opportunities for media publishers,” at the Jakarta head office of the Newspaper Publishers Association, SPS, on Oct. 25.

Azrul acknowledged much research had shown young people today had abandoned print media as against older readers.

The Surabaya-based daily, however, has successfully coopted secondary school kids. It builds activities that involve them in the activities they want. Without citing figures, Azrul claimed the paper’s circulation and revenue continued to grow.

For its innovative efforts, Jawa Pos received international recognition when the World Association of Newspapers named it the 2011 World Young Reader Newspaper of the Year.

“If all newspapers have the drive, the anxiety that newspapers will fold is irrelevant,” Azrul said.

So what has Jawa Pos done?  What is the newspaper’s drive, if not passion?

Azrul, 33, heir apparent to a multimedia enterprise that his father, Dahlan Iskan, created, was given a challenge after he returned from college in the US. Dahlan dared his son to create a page especially for young people, after Azrul said the Jawa Pos was boring.

Azrul accepted the challenge but asked that the youth content be more than one page, and that it should run daily so that its intended audience would be in contact with the paper every day. Its content would be youth-oriented topics from games to fashion.

In 2000, DetEksi, the new youth section of the Jawa Pos, was born. Azrul recruited college students on one-year stints to work on the section. Their average age is 21. Their editor is 22 years old.  They were entrusted to manage their own finances. They received a budget to stage youth events that they organized 100 percent by themselves, with no outsourcing.

The implied intent is get young people to want to buy and read the paper when it prints stories about their interests and, more importantly, about themselves.

The events the youth page team created and covered were concerts, outings, and a line of fun-gatherings. Perhaps the crowning creation came from Azrul himself: basketball. He wanted more boys and girls involved in participatory sports. The two most popular sports in Indonesia are football and badminton. Football lacked appeal among girls. Badminton had only singles and doubles matches. That left volleyball and basketball, for which schoolyards would have a playing court.

Azrul chose basketball. He started a citywide tournament in 2004. Applications from Surabaya high schools exceeded capacity.

Players had their pictures and stories in the paper. This triggered a buzz with more schools and students clamoring for space in the youth section. The buzz went viral across the country.

The phenomenal growth of interprovincial high school basketball for both boys and girls, spawned by Jawa Pos, drove the paper to build its own 5,000-seat arena in 2007. It is in walking distance from the daily’s office building, the high-rise Graha Pena in Surabaya.

The paper-sponsored basketball became a business so a separate company was made to run it. In 2008, PT DBL (Development Basketball League) Indonesia was established. By 2009, high schools in 15 provinces participated.

It has collaborated with America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), bringing more than 20 NBA players to Indonesia. Junior high schools have their own league: Junio JRBL.

A newspaper for youth is the call. One measure of that achievement is a 2011 Nielsen survey finding that 51 percent of Jawa Pos readers are below 30-years-old. This gives the paper a strong readership base for the future. A major Jakarta daily scored 36 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile, Jakarta-based teen magazine Gogirl! also proactively engages its audience. Business director Nina Moran, who started the home-grown monthly magazine in 2005 with younger sisters Anita (chief editor) and Githa (fashion and beauty editor), says Gogirl! practices “co-creation” with its readers and advertisers.

The 200-page-plus magazine is half-thick in ads. The content has strong reader participation. One major co-creation project was a 100-booth passion expo at Gandaria City mall in South Jakarta on Oct. 4-5.

Nina, 34, mapped out how to make successful campaigns that yielded responses and sales. The “how” ranges from understanding market realities to optimizing “customers’ zero moment of truth”. The latter includes helping customers “buy with their eyes” and building trust with answers and social signals.

The bottom line is that Gogirl! is priced at Rp 27,500 (Oct 2013 issue), is mostly sold off the newsstand and has a circulation of 45,000 copies on average. This is the real figure and not the claimed figure, Nina said. A 2007 issue went as high as 74,000 copies because of an enclosed legging gimmick.

For its part, The Jakarta Post has also been savvy in hooking new young readers. Its lure is the monthly magazine Speak!, distributed for free to high schools. The only charge is the mailing.  One attraction this youth publication offers is clinics in good English writing for high school students.

Jawa Pos, Gogirl! and The Jakarta Post apparently hold the common belief that their futures as sustainable print media outlets depend on how well and how creatively they invest in young readers.

The writer teaches journalism at Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS), Jakarta.