My Thoughts on Improving Education in Cambodia

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The tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left the Cambodian education in ruins. There is a lot to be done to improve the education system in Cambodia. One day I had a discussion with my friend Gareth Mace who said, “Cambodia needs to establish a good school structure and from there she can expand the structure to all over the country.” I do agree with his idea and I think the government has to have a good plan and work closely with the NGOs to improve education in Cambodia.

One of the NGOs working to improve the education system in Cambodia is “
Caring for Cambodia” (CFC), which has worked to support public schools in the Siem Reap region. Although the “success” of their school model has not been measured yet, some changes are visible such as libraries with thousand books, beautiful classrooms, qualify teachers who receive professional training, and free lunches that are available for all students and teachers. As such, we could assume that CFC schools are better than other government schools that rely on very limited resources. In addition, the dropout rate at CFC schools is 1.70% compared to the national average of 8.70% and student retention rate is 93.82% compared with the national average of 61.20% (CFC newsletter, 2011-2012).

CFC is working continuously to improve the curriculum, teacher quality, as well as school management. For example, CFC provides support for the school structure and management by appointing a qualified Cambodian as a country director. 

CFC has also established a partnership with professional groups in Singapore to work on curriculum development. A teacher training director was appointed to ensure the improvement of the quality of the teachers. Teacher training includes a study tour to Singapore, teacher training by international teachers, in-house trainings, and  workshops. The teacher mentor program was established in order to provide ongoing support for teachers in the classroom and to sustain the capacity building of the teachers.

Furthermore, CFC is providing volunteer opportunities for individuals and institutions around the globe. The volunteering is included in the Education Committee and School Liaison Committee. The Education Committee was set up in Singapore and is responsible for holding the workshops and supporting the Cambodian teachers, as well as developing teaching materials for the Cambodian classrooms. The Education Committee members sometime travel to Siem Reap to provide training for CFC teachers.  I think that these strategies provide a great human resource for CFC to support their teachers without much cost.  The School Liaison Committee is responsible for building a network between CFC and school communities from around the world. The school committee is also responsible for promoting CFC, school tour and fundraising, supply drive, mobilize the resources for CFC, and communication. The School Liaison Committee provides a great support to CFC by addressing the needs of human resources and other resources.

My thoughts regarding the education development plan for Cambodian schools is that CFC could engage and network with other public school in other provinces. The CFC school model – for example the teacher training model, curriculum model, and school management model – should be considered for wider dissemination in other public schools. CFC could also facilitate more internship in other schools. Many of the NGOs that have been supporting Cambodian schools should be cooperated with CFC in order to support to the whole educational system in other public schools in Cambodia. There are many areas in which this collective approach would be beneficial, including networking, partnership, curriculum development, teacher training, school materials, library development, learning technology, data management systems and research programs. More importantly there should be a central board that would monitor each components of the education development, for example curriculum development board, teacher training board, or school management board. The central board should provide guideline to the NGOs and manage their work based on the needs of each individual school. These NGOs should be working together closely and collaboratively to establish a good educational structure such as CFC schools.

Low Teacher Salaries Harm Public Education in Cambodia

Corruption

The Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left the Cambodian education system in ruins. Millions of people were killed, including the majority of educated people, scholars, professors, and teachers. Schools were destroyed, libraries leveled, and books burned. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Cambodian government and international development agencies to rebuild the educational systems since the 1980s, the tragedy of Khmer Rouge continues to haunt public education today.

Teachers have played a central role in the education re-building efforts, yet they remain grossly underpaid. According to official statistics, in 2010-2011 there were 88,133 public school teachers in Cambodia, receiving wages in the range of just $50.00 to $100 per month. With this wage they have to teach a minimum of 16-18 hours per week. According to a Cambodia Independent Teacher Association (CITA) study from 2010-2011, primary school teachers received $50 per month with required teaching of at least 16 hours per week, lower secondary school teachers received $75 per month, and upper secondary school teachers received $100 per month. The study also showed that the wages increased by 120% for the primary teachers, 60% for the lower secondary teachers, and 20% for upper secondary teachers so that they could afford a decent standard of living (for example, basic food cost is placed at least $19.80 per month).

With wages at their current levels, teachers struggle to survive. More than 90% of teachers work second jobs in order to support their families. After school hours, many female teaches often sell snacks and phone cards on school campus, while male teachers work as motorbike taxi drivers or other jobs  in order to supplement their incomes.

One of the main sources of additional income for many teachers is private tutoring.  One student said: “I can’t pass the test if I don’t take a private tutoring class.” In private tutoring, teachers provide answers to the tests in order to attract more students to pay them. Some students have to drop out of school because they are unable to afford tutoring and subsequently fail their exams (IRIN, 2008). From my own experience as a high school student in Cambodia, I had to take private tutoring classes in order to prepare for the mid-term, final, and national exams. Those sessions were not provided in the formal classroom, but through private tutoring.

To prepare for university exams, we needed “special private tutoring,” which was conducted by the teachers who were involved in issuing the exam questions. We often discussed how important it was to take tutoring with particular teachers who had been known to be involved in the college entrance examinations every year. However, I could not afford it. And so couldn’t many other Cambodian students.

Private tutoring is not the only additional income tool for underpaid teachers, however. Teachers involved in college entrance exam and high school exam also earn money by selling question and answer books before the exams. Usually, one day before the exam the books are available for purchase on the streets almost everywhere especially in main cities. Every year before the national exam day, groups of students buy the question and answer books in order to help them during the exam day and, worse still, the students even pay the teachers during the exam so that they can open the books for the answers. This culture is well known by all but it does not seem to change, despite the many negative repercussions for students and wider society as a whole. Who should be leading the change and how?

Because teachers receive low wages, corruption has become the norm and quality education in unaffordable to many students. This raises many questions. In order to provide a better quality of education, should the first priority of government be aimed towards supporting and motivating the teachers? How could communities support the teachers? And, what have UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and other international agencies done for Cambodian teachers since they began to work in the country?