BY BEV & VIC ROMANYSHYN
IN 1972, we were science teachers at Keravat National High School. The school was in excellent condition and well run. The NSW syllabus was used resulting in standards of educational achievement running parallel to those of that state.
As we departed at the end of 1973, we were optimistic that PNG was on track to establish a total educational program appropriate to the needs of its young people and of an internationally acceptable standard. Such a program would continue to allow the top PNG students access to any international post secondary institution they might aspire to attend.
Our recent five month volunteer teaching assignments at Keravat National High School provided us opportunity to observe the education process in action at the same school 38 years later. Our hearts were saddened as we realised that students are now experiencing the results of an education system in failure.
These students were survivors of an education system rife with government corruption and plagued by inadequate funding, poor English skills of teachers, low curriculum standards, inappropriate assessment practices and a lack of teacher competence and professionalism.
Instead of graduating with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to become solid, contributing citizens in PNG they are short changed in their educational experience. Our comments reflect our experience teaching at Keravat National High School but such experiences are not an isolated case. They represent challenges administrators, teachers and students face in schools across PNG. The various obstacles to education we identify demand local, regional and national attention.
The young people of PNG are its greatest resource. Their education is the best investment PNG can make. Well educated students become astute and capable leaders, professionals, business people and citizens; the foundation required for a secure and prosperous society in PNG. Education in PNG has not received the financial support required to function properly leading to the deterioration we witnessed. Sadly, money allocated to education is too often short circuited into the pockets of corrupt politicians and their friends.
Lack of teaching & learning resources
Teacher and student access to computers, internet, textbooks, reference materials and audio-visual aids is essential for effective teaching and learning. The Keravat library was sadly lacking in recent and relevant resources for every subject. The books available were old and in poor condition with little if any direct syllabus linkage. The student computer lab had only seven computers with teachers having access to an additional four computers all of which were outdated and slow. No internet access and no hope of establishing such was a huge handicap to teachers and students. Chronic lack of resources contributes strongly to the lack of teacher motivation and teacher apathy that was so clearly visible at Keravat.
Poor English skills
In the 1970’s and 80’s PNG education was moving strongly toward English because English was the official language of the country. As we returned to PNG in July 2010, we expected the population to be speaking good English assuming that over the last 38 years two generations or more of students would have learned English well during their schooling. We were surprised to find that instead Pidgin continues as the language of choice.
Pidgin is even being used in high school by teachers in the course of daily instruction English skills are sadly lacking throughout the population. Such practices put students facing grade 12 final examinations requiring the skilled use of English at a great disadvantage. This problem must be addressed and remedied or the standard of English speaking and comprehension will continue to deteriorate bringing the whole standard of education in PNG down with it.
Syllabuses fall short of international standards
In 1972 science education standards were equivalent to those of Australia and were acceptable internationally. Now content and outcomes of the grade eleven and twelve PNG chemistry and biology programs fall approximately two years behind those of our home province of Alberta in Canada.
Such a “watered down” syllabus poses problems for PNG graduates seeking entrance to post secondary institutions overseas. They cannot compete successfully because of the low level of achievement the PNG school leavers’ certificate represents. PNG graduates face outright denial of entry or one year or more years of upgrading before admission to a first year program becomes possible.
At Keravat National High School it was school policy that teachers submitted student marks in all subjects which were adjusted so predetermined percentages of students fell into each of the A, B, C, D and E grading categories. This was done with no regard to the actual marks students attained for their classroom performance. As a consequence, marks awarded to each student at the end of each term did not reflect their true knowledge and understanding of the course content. Students demonstrated far less competence than their awarded term mark would imply.
Marks on the national examinations are adjusted so the final reported marks reach normal acceptable standards and fall neatly into the prescribed letter grades with no regard to actual student performance. How does PNG hope to educate and train the leaders and professionals it needs when such assessment practices paint a false picture of what students actually know and can do?
Examination security compromised
Students and teachers told us that final examination questions have been bought and sold and even appeared on the internet before such final examinations were written. These allegations may or may not be true but steps that absolutely guarantee examination security must be in place to preserve the integrity of the examination process.
Teacher expertise and professionalism
Currently PNG requires a strong cohort of capable, well qualified and highly motivated teachers at all levels and in all subjects. In their daily classroom practice PNG teachers face the results of chronic underfunding and corruption at every level. Within this ailing education system some teachers carry on as best they can, others become discouraged and apathetic and some give up as they face huge obstacles to effective classroom practice.
The lack of teaching and learning resources, poor teacher housing and pay, unheeded teacher grievances, school buildings falling apart and health and safety threats loom as maintenance and upgrading are non-existent.
Lack of accountability
Within the mark boosting system previously described teachers fall into an endless cycle of mark adjustment. They are no longer accountable for teaching course content to a level where students’ unadjusted marks fall close to an acceptable average of near 60%. Teachers lose sight of that professional obligation, secure in the knowledge that whatever the classroom results, marks are adjusted to mask poor student performance.
In reality standards have slipped to low and unacceptable levels and continue to remain there. Lack of accountability coupled with mark boosting produces a vicious cycle holding PNG’s education system firmly in its grip.
Teachers as models
Teachers at Keravat cited students’ low ability, lack of punctuality, lack of interest in their studies, poor attitudes, non-participation in work parade, betel nut and alcohol use and cult activities as reasons for poor student performance. The Keravat grade 12 students were referred to as simply “a bad lot”. Unfortunately a large proportion of teachers displayed a lack of professionalism by exhibiting many of the very behaviors they abhorred in students.
Teachers arrived late or simply did not show up for classes, assemblies, examination invigilation, work parades or dormitory and sports supervision. Betel nut chewing was common with teachers chewing throughout the school day. Teacher alcohol abuse was not uncommon and very visible to students. In some cases alcohol was supplied to students by teachers or support staff. Alcohol abuse by teachers in the school compound had lead to huge problems between teachers and those problems polarised the staff to a degree so little if any collaboration or cooperation to solve problems was possible.
Instead of adapting their teaching methods to meet the student needs, teachers continued to blame poor student performance on the general low ability of the student body. The school limped along with poor classroom practice, few extracurricular outlets for students and virtually no school maintenance. Teachers lacked the motivation and professionalism to do the jobs they were being paid to do. Students followed the model of unprofessional behavior provided by teachers and they took advantage of opportunities to get into trouble. Empathy and concern for students was sadly missing in many of the teachers.
We observed no enforcement of school rules against betel nut or alcohol use by teachers. No tangible assistance to abusers or consequence for repeated abuse was evident even though a fair proportion of Keravat staff regularly chewed betel nut on the job and school grounds, showed up for duty under the influence of alcohol or suffering from the effects of alcohol or simply did not show up for duty. Accountability for such unprofessional conduct was virtually nil sending a strong negative message to students who observed teachers chewing and drinking with impunity.
Our observations identify obstacles contributing to the decline in educational quality in PNG and recommendations for remedial action. All these obstacles need urgent attention if a marked improvement is to be expected in the foreseeable future. The political stability of PNG will ultimately be affected if the government fails to respond appropriately.
PNG must make swift changes to the educational system if the country is to remain a stable democracy with a healthy economy. Without a strong cohort of citizens educated to acceptable international standards to provide leadership and expertise for development and management of the country’s infrastructure and public services the standard of living for the average citizen will not improve. This would be a tragedy as PNG has the potential to do so much better.
Bev and Vic Romanyshyn were Canadian volunteer teachers at Keravat National High School from June to October this year. You can read their full report here