A Look At the Indonesian Education System

By Will

If you think that title sounded exciting, buckle up, for the 1,100 word ride. 

A few months ago, we had a post celebrating our first year in Indonesia. Today is another landmark day as we celebrate one year since we left training and arrived at site.  Those two time periods, training and actual time at site exist in two different worlds. It felt that the time we spent in Batu lasted forever as we arrived as infants, not knowing how to speak, bathe, eat or operate in society. Our time at site, after being equipped with these essential tools, has relatively flown by.

In the last year we have taught two semesters of school, built a support network and have become part of a community (well, at least as much as two white people with a loose grasp of the language can). It has been a great year and we are looking forward to year two, knowing that time will pass more swiftly and our service in the Peace Corps will be finished before we know it.

Looking back over the past year at site, most of the big memories that stick out are those that occurred at school. We are there 5 days a week most weeks (barring the odd holidays or random school cancellations) and its our actual ‘job’ here in Indonesia. Despite this taking up most of our time and mental capacity here, we haven’t written much about our schools or the school system on the blog. Mostly, this was due to a lack of knowledge or understanding about why things are the way they are.

Before beginning teaching, we had been informed/warned by other volunteers and staff about many of the common problems that plague the Indonesia education system: rampant cheating, unpredictable class cancellations, error-ridden text books and a promotion system that will allow any student to pass.

On their face, its pretty easy to see that these issues are bad and a challenge that the country must overcome. However, I can’t say that I understood why these issues existed until after a year of teaching. Throughout the year I prodded my fellow teachers for information about this: was it always this way? How did all of our students pass the national exam? Why can’t we just schedule teacher meetings so that classes aren’t disrupted at random?

I still think that there is much to learn and Peace Corps always reminds us of the cultural iceberg–the obvious cultural differences are only the tip of the iceberg, the reasons for the differences are hidden below the surface–however, after a year, I feel like I have a decent idea about the problems that I’ve seen and encountered while teaching.

To me, the two biggest underlying issues that my students face are the size of their schedule and the unreasonable expectations put on them by the system.

The students’ schedule is more similar to a university schedule then a typical American high school in that they have each subject only two days a week. Why? Because they have sixteen or seventeen subjects every semester! Where a typical American high school has students study biology one year and chemistry another, my students have them on the same schedule in addition to physics, geology and geography.  In addition to English, my 10th grade students are also required to study German, Japanese and Bahasa Indonesia (which isn’t their first language, Javanese is). Add these classes to the sociology, economics, math, art, sports, religion, and social studies classes. Of course, with sixteen classes comes sixteen homework assignments, sixteen mid-terms, sixteen final exams…

The deck is stacked against the students. How can they master sixteen subjects? One of the more interesting things I’ve discovered is that very few students do well in all subjects. As I looked over their report cards, I found that some of my best students were receiving minimum scores in other subjects. Some of my worst students were excelling in other areas.

When students ask me for the key differences between American and Indonesian schools, I always talk about the schedule. When I was in high school (man, that’s starting to look like a long time ago…) I had four subjects each semester and they changed at the end of the semester. Amy had six. I studied French everyday for ninety minutes for eight semesters in high school. Even after that, I was far from ‘mastering’ the language. How can my students who see us just twice a week expect to learn the language?

This leads to the second point, unreasonable expectations. Despite the overwhelming schedule that students face, they must still be prepared for the national exam that they take at the end of 12th grade in order to graduate. Having seen old versions of the English exam, I know that the material is unbelievably hard. Not only are the readings very difficult, but the questions are vaguely worded and sometimes don’t have a clear answer. I work to scale down our tests in class, because I know that students can’t succeed at the level that the workbooks recommend. However, there is no scaling down of the national exam.

So how does a student who isn’t adequately prepared pass the national exam (or the mid-term and final exams)? They cheat. And its not hard to understand why.

It also doesn’t help that the cheating isn’t solely in the province of the students. Recently, following the national exams, a scandal was exposed in a neighboring regency (county) where a school official was selling answers the week prior to the exam. I’ve heard a number of stories that state that this example isn’t unique.

But why would school officials participate in encouraging cheating?

Because high school is a business. You must pay to attend, so why choose a school that fails students when you can go to one that has near-guaranteed promotion? Not to mention the pressure that comes from the county-wide education agency and other higher-ups that want to show success. Additionally, its well established that nearly 100% of students will pass their classes each year (this is pretty universal), so my worst students will get the minimal passing grade. This, of course provides a pretty heavy disincentive to studying. Just cheat, or don’t bother trying. If you fail, you’ll still pass.

Is it a coincidence that this level of cheating and encouraged-cheating exists in a country that is ranked 118th least corrupt worldwide?

When I first began teaching, it was easy to direct my anger over the cheating/passing at my students and school. However, after the past year, its much more clear just how unclear the whole problem is. As Indonesia continues its rapid rise and becomes a major global economic player, this issue and the challenges it presents will continue to grow as well.


One thought on “A Look At the Indonesian Education System

  1. Thanks, that was really insightful. Teaching in another country can be very challenging as you are finding. The cultural perspective is so important. When I taught in Ghana, students at the secondary level took a leaving exam, it was common to all former British colonies in West Africa.and was standardized. That exam determined if you went to college or to a technical school. It was a big deal so we taught to a syllabus which prepared students for the exam. Some PC teachers made the mistake to try to teach off the syllabus…enlightment..? and that resulted in students boycotting the teacher..a student strike. I made sure I covered the syllabus but would sneak in other ideas like powers of observation ( I taught Biology and Chemistry) and the scientific method. The syllabus tended to promote rote memorization so I worked against that but made sure we covered the subjects. These kids would study all night trying to memorize stuff, I was a dormitory supervisor and would commonly find students studying with a flashlight after lights out.
    Thankfully, smart kids beat the system and went on to good careers, there was no cheating because we monitored those final exams. The same goes for the exams when students take their sixth form exams, sixth form was available at special schools, mine included, as a result of the secondary exams you could go to sixth form, a two year study on 3 subjects, it was either science orientated or liberal arts, we are talking doctors or lawyers. i taught sixth form Biology. It is like first year year university in the states. If students passed the sixth form test, they went on to a three year university degree in Ghana or went abroad. I personally supervised the Biology Exam and graded the students results. I am taken aback by the cavalier attitude in Java. Hopefully that will change. There must be some checks and balances on university degrees?

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