Reflections on Indonesia’s teacher reform

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In 2005, I had the great fortune of being in Indonesia just as its major teacher reform effort was beginning to take off.  Indonesia’s parliament had passed a comprehensive law on teachers, along with its ambitious agenda. Its signature program of certification intended to dramatically improve both teacher welfare and quality.  Certified teachers would receive a doubling of salary, and certification was to require that teachers hold a four-year degree and demonstrate possession of competencies necessary to provide good quality education.
The key ingredients for major change seemed in place.  Good legislation, and an effort led by a dynamic champion who headed a newly established directorate in the Education Ministry, with the specific mandate of improving the quality of teachers and of educational staff.

Eight years have passed and the reform is still very much a work in progress.  But it is beneficial and sobering to step back and reflect on the reform’s many accomplishments, while also recognizing the obstacles that kept it from reaching its anticipated heights. A recent publication, Teacher Reform in Indonesia, provides deep analysis of the reform, as well as insights on teacher quality and management. I will only scratch the surface here, by touching upon what struck me as three salient lessons.
First, don’t underestimate the political economy dimension. Many would agree on the importance of having high quality teachers.  But the issue can quickly become sensitive once the discussion turns from abstract contemplations to concrete actions. In Indonesia, the initial elation and unity following the law’s passage diminished when discussion focused on how to actually measure teacher quality and ensure that teachers meet certain standards.
Through a lengthy design process, certification was to involve three components: competency testing, classroom observation and a teacher portfolio.
But, as in many other countries, policies related to teacher evaluation often run into resistance from teachers’ unions and associations. In Indonesia, the certification process was both blessed and cursed with being linked to the large incentive of a double salary, along with a legal requirement that teachers become certified by 2015. Tied to such high financial and career stakes, when the certification design reached parliament it was diluted to where only the portfolio review remained.
The political economy dimension can be further seen in the program implementation, which was further compromised by two pressures: the need to spend the allocated budget for allowances, and to meet the yearly targets for the number of teachers to be certified. Rather than be used as an identifier for teachers reaching a standard of quality, virtually every teacher who underwent the certification process succeeded.
Second, recognize the distinctions among qualifications, quality and performance. A rigorous impact evaluation covering the first four years of the certification program has indicated that there was no difference between certified and uncertified teachers in their subject and pedagogical knowledge, nor of the learning outcomes of their students.
Two factors stand out in explaining this result. One factor is the reliance on qualifications as a measure of quality. This is only true if the required qualifications are tied to indicators of a teacher’s ability to teach and produce good student learning outcomes. With the watering down of the certification standards and process, the qualification itself lost considerable significance.
Another important factor is that salaries were doubled without an associated accountability mechanism that would ensure continued performance. While some argued that the increased salary itself would lead to better performance, the impact results provide strong evidence that, in Indonesia’s case, money alone was an insufficient motivator, even in the short-term.
Interventions that only focus on quality or performance can have a positive effect. However the two are intertwined. Integrated systems that encourage and support genuine quality improvement, while also recognizing and rewarding performance, may be most effective in the long-term.
Third, teacher quality improvement must be seen as a continuous process that requires a holistic approach. In Indonesia’s reform, the spotlight was initially placed on certification. While certification has brought positive results, such as the increase of teachers holding a four-year degree from 23 to 63 percent by 2012 and a large upsurge of higher quality candidates into teacher training colleges, it unfortunately didn’t reach the heights of expected impact.
In looking beyond certification, however, a promising picture emerges. The reform fortunately did not rely on a single instrument, but rather used a comprehensive approach that involved all aspects of the teacher life cycle. This includes programs such as new teacher induction, probation, recognition of prior learning, strengthening and expansion of multiple avenues for pre-service training and in-service professional development, and a clear map of career progression and promotion.
The government has evaluated key aspects of the reform and shows a willingness to revise and strengthen the system. Competency testing and classroom observation are now part of the newly developed Teacher Professional Management System. The system provides support to teachers, and integrates competency testing and performance appraisal with continuous professional and career development.
While Indonesia continues to learn from its challenges and improve its reforms, its experience can also inform other countries trying to improve their educational systems.  Teacher reform poses many challenges and involves many unexpected twists and turns that require adjustments along the way. While the process has not always been smooth, the full-cycle program of reform envisioned in the teacher law is moving forward and shows long-term promise. It is important that the current and future governments in Indonesia continue this program of improvement.


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