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Volunteer Yeremiah teaching a class on international relations
Volunteer Yeremiah teaching a class on international relations. Photo: Courtesy of Yeremia Lalisang

The Long and Winding Road to Improving the Quality of Education in Indonesia

When 24-year old International Relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia Yeremia Lalisang decided to join “Inspiration Class”, he was determined to “do something”, instead of complaining all the time about endless problems in his beloved country. Yeremia opted to share his world of International Relations to elementary students in Cilincing, one of the city’s poorest areas in North Jakarta.

“The programme provides us a bridge. It gives the opportunity to be part of the solution,” Yeremia told The Establishment Post, adding “Although the road to school was really dusty, because it is located near a highway where thousands of containers pass by everyday to make their way to the port; but you find most of teachers there have a masters degree”.

Yeremia Lalisang is of course, not alone. The Inspiration Class programme has hundreds of professionals from various fields of expertise and backgrounds who eagerly share stories relating to their careers and achievements with elementary school students in several big cities in the country. These “volunteers”, as they call themselves, talk about their work and how they got there so as to give these children hope: the same thing is possible for anyone with enough determination to reach for their dreams.

Programs such as “Inspiration Class” are often praised as a breakthrough in the clogged education system in Indonesia. Lack of teachers, as well as their poor quality is one of many problems to be tackled.

It is a sister program of “Indonesia Teaches”; a highly respected, nationwide movement of sending young intellectuals from Jakarta to teach in remote corners of Indonesia’s most impoverished schools. With its motto “Stop Cursing the Darkness, Let’s Light a Candle”, the programme is funded by private corporations and initiated by the prominent Paramadina University’s rector Anies Baswedan in 2009.

Little did Yeremia know, the one day of action inspired not just the elementary students they visit, but most of all, the volunteers themselves. “After what I see in Cilincing, I feel that there’s hope for Indonesia” he said.

Education experts say less than half of the total number of three million teachers in the country possess the minimum qualifications to teach and teacher absenteeism lingers at around 20 per cent. Many teachers in public schools often work outside of the classroom to supplement their incomes.

In a country where 57 million attend school, the education system is plagued by lack of infrastructure, teachers and inequality between Java and outer islands.

“Education is a constitutional obligation of the state, but it is our moral obligation as one of the educated, to help,” Anies Baswedan, the initiator of “Indonesia Teaches” and “Inspiration Class” told The Establishment Post. “We should encourage more involvement from society.  As a matter of fact, let’s get everyone involved”.

Anies highlighted many problems with Indonesian education, but was reassuring that fellow countrymen can help by providing good quality teachers, “I believe teachers are the key to improving our education,” he said.

“Another big problem is when you see a huge gap in enrollment between elementary to middle and high school students; not so many of us care about dropout rates” Anies added.

Data from the national education ministry in 2011 shows that there are more than 183,000 children who dropped out of elementary school in Indonesia. A higher number, 210,000 dropped out of secondary level and more than 224,000 left high school.


source: National Agency for Statistics, Indonesia

“Access to education is extremely important. We should stop speaking as a Javanese who lives in Jakarta and start addressing this problem as an Indonesian, a country consists of thousands of islands,” he added. By this, he meant that for decades, Indonesian education system has been formulated on the basis of urban population whereas the country is a huge archipelago, with problems such as poor access for students and inequality between provinces and big cities.

Aside from the infrastructure problems, more criticism is directed at the “burdensome” curriculum.

Indonesian educators and commentators have long slammed the country’s school system for placing more emphasis on rote learning than creative thinking, which has resulted in Indonesia consistently being placed at the bottom on international standard tests, even compared to other Asean member countries let alone western developed countries.

“That’s the picture of our real education condition. Those international tests are conducted for the level of higher thinking; whereas our students are taught to rote learn. Large numbers of Indonesian students are illiterate, on the other hand; international standard tests are conducted in written form. In short, I can say that our education system was never designed well to compete internationally”, said Weilin Han, an independent teacher trainer and school consultant who travels throughout Indonesia, including remote areas in the eastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

In an exclusive interview with The Establishment Post, Education Minister Mohammad Nuh responds to those critics by saying, “We take small steps regularly in trying to reach bigger improvements”. He then added with “We will never run out of problems in taking care of education in Indonesia, but we just have to fix it, and that is my standpoint”.

To address problems in infrastructure such as collapsed schools, in 2011 the ministry launched a national program and fixed tens of thousands of schools around the country.

Enter the New Curriculum

As an attempt to answer many critics, the Indonesian government is introducing a new curriculum to be implemented as early as July this year in an attempt to simplify education, slash dropout rates and boosts quality in accordance with international standards.

However, the road is difficult. The new curriculum has drawn more criticism than support since day one of its introduction. There is much misperception in the public which includes worries that the new curriculum would reduce the amount of science taught to Indonesian children; ironically more hours will be spent on subjects such as religion and morality.

“It’s my responsibility to improve our education. We have to prepare for that demography bonus by 2045 or else we will have lost a major opportunity,” Education minister Mohammad Nuh told The Establishment Post.

“International tests such as TIMMS [Trends in International Math and Science Study] and PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment]  reveals that our results in sciences and math are low. It is impossible not to teach our children science and math,” he added.

Experts on those subjects however, delivered their disagreement.

“Specifically in Math, I see new curriculum demands students’ obedience on the way they count. I think that will prevent children from creative thinking and at the end of the day, we won’t be able to develop science,” said Iwan Pranoto, a Math Professor from Bandung Institute of Technology to The Establishment Post.

Iwan argues that each student is special and they should be allowed to implement their own style of studying. He said the new curriculum will only shut down creativity in learning.

“This curriculum will prevent us from having a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in the future,” he added.

Words such as “thematic” and “integrative” on the new curriculum have instigated mass discomfort, as it is not familiar to schools in Indonesia.

“Thematic and integrative approaches in the new curriculum requires highly skilled teachers,” according to Anies Baswedan, pointing straight at the old and dire problem of the country’s poor quality teachers.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Thematic and integrative is a concept that has been long practiced in private schools such as Lazuardi Global Islamic School in Jakarta. Lazuardi’s Middle school principal Sonya Sinyanyuri is happy to know that Lazuardi’s “way of teaching” is acknowledged in the way the new curriculum is formulated.

“I believe the old curriculum is more material oriented, which is burdensome for students. In Lazuardi, it is solved through the thematic and integrative approach and it works well,” she said.

Sonya understands public worries because anything new leads to distress; especially for teachers, and parents.

“This is a shift in paradigm and people need to adapt to new challenges,” Sonya said. At the same time, she agrees that the time period given for preparation for teachers to understand and adapt to the new ways of teaching is quite short.

Despite all the problems and challenges faced by the Indonesian education system, improvements and constant effort creates hopes. Just like Yeremia Lalisang, the International Relations lecturer said, “There’s still hope for Indonesia”.

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  • https://www.facebook.com/nengah.mandra Nengah Mandra

    I never thought that I would be able to be in the position to comment on the state of Indonesian education today, given the fact that I was the product of the Old and backward Indonesian education system during the 80s. being in the United states and currently involves with the education systems here, what indonesia needs is the balance approach of education that is practical and systematic: involve heart, head and hands. religion subject should be given to parents to teach, instead morality should be focus on the unity of the country’s common goals. Thanks!