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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #13

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (cont'd)

Socioeconomic Factors Affecting Education

While it is important that we focus on schools to make sure that they are adequately funded, well equipped, and have trained teachers, we should not be blind to the social factors that can have a major impact on students’ performance. Access to schools, even when they are made free and readily available, can be blocked by seemingly innocuous factors like the need for school uniforms and transportation. We should also be mindful that what many would regard as opportunities, to the disadvantaged they may well be looked upon as obstacles.

There are many factors outside of education, in particular the social environment and culture, which affect educational attainment. We ignore them at our own peril. In a landmark 1966 study, the American sociologist James S. Coleman showed that the most important factor influencing school performance is the family, not the type of school or the amount of funding it receives. Parental involvement in the school is the best predictor of academic performance. Or as an old English saying would have it, one father is more effective than a hundred schoolmasters.

California publishes an annual evaluation of its schools, the Academic Performance Index (API), based on such indicators as test scores and graduation rates. What is remarkable is that the API correlates very well with the socio-economic status of the parents, leading many to dub it as the Affluent Parents Index.

US News publishes an annual report on the best American high schools. Invariably the top ones are the elite private prep schools. But I am not impressed with them; with their high fees and rigorous selection process they would pick only the best. Those students would have done well even if they had attended the local high school. Occasionally the list comes up with some regular public schools, those are the ones that truly impress me because they and their teachers have truly added value to their students.

One such school was Garfield High, a public inner city school in East Los Angeles with predominantly poor minority students. Their teacher, Jaime Escalante, successfully challenged them to take rigorous mathematic classes including advanced calculus. His students did so well on the College Board examinations that it thought that they had cheated, and under some pretext so as not to arouse suspicion, asked them to re-sit the test. Again they scored well. When word spread about the truth for the re-examination, the students were at first furious and then on reflection, they felt truly proud of their achievement.

Their teacher became a celebrity, later portrayed in the 1988 movie, Stand and Deliver. His was not an easy task; he had to spend years upgrading the math classes at the lower levels first.

Singapore, with its obsession of aping everything American, has a similar ranking exercise of its schools, except that the paternal government does it. The same schools come on top every year. Again that does not impress me. Had the rankings been based on the educational achievements and socio-economic status of the parents, the list would be identical. Sorry, no kudos for the teachers at its top schools.

This is true of schools as well as universities. It is well known that graduates of elite universities consistently earn more than those of less selective ones, leading many to credit those august institutions. This makes intuitive sense too. But a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research put things in their proper perspective. Instead of simplistically comparing the earnings of graduates of top universities to those attending other institutions, they studied the subgroup of students who were admitted to elite institutions but instead chose for a variety of reasons to attend less well-known universities. It turns out both groups do equally well. Essentially if you are smart and hardworking it does not matter whether you attend Harvard or Podunk State University, you will do well.

American prep schools actively diversify their student body by granting scholarships to talented minority students. These schools also have special coaching classes to scout for promising candidates. The ABC (A Better Choice) is one such successful program. The socioeconomic trap can be broken with imaginative policies. Even here there are pitfalls and failures. To a few, being selected for Groton and Exeter is not an opportunity rather a severe culture shock.

The importance of parental involvement in education may be self evident, but we need to look further and ask the even more basic question: Why are poor parents not involved in their children’s education?

While we seek answers to that, we must also explore the exceptions, that is, where poor parents are deeply involved with their children’s education to the point of willingly sacrificing everything.

In America, private Catholic schools in the inner cities do a much better job than public schools despite being less generously funded.

One reason is that when parents send their children to these schools, they believe in the system. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values; that in turn encourages even more parental involvement. This does not happen only with Catholic schools. Later I will describe the experience of Deborah Meier with her small school in East Harlem where over 90 percent of her students go on to college, a rate nearly twice the national average and certainly way ahead of other inner city public schools. Her secret? Getting the parents involved by respecting them, and by having high expectations of their children.

The same phenomenon is also seen among Malays. Malay children attending religious schools have low rates of absenteeism and dropouts. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values, and the parents in turn feel involved with and are connected to the schools. Parents do not fear that the school is imparting an alien value system. Their teachers too are committed, believing that they are doing Allah’s work. We should capitalize on this affinity and use Islam as a powerful motivator to keep children in school, and their parents involved. As Malays are attracted to Islamic schools, all the more that we must make sure that these schools provide the education these children need to face the modern age.

The success of Catholic schools in America and Islamic schools in Malaysia may be attributed to what is called the Rosenthal effect. Robert Rosenthal is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA who discovered that experimenters’ expectations and teachers’ biases often influence the results of an experiment or class. That is, expectations are self-fulfilling. This is also termed the Pygmalion effect, after George Bernard Shaw’s play made famous by the Broadway show, My Fair Lady. The sheer confidence of the lead character, Professor Higgins, in transforming a lowly Cockney lass into a refined lady made it happen.

A major portion of my reform addresses specifically this important issue of the Rosenthal phenomenon. The frequent harping on the poor performance of Malays in science and mathematics may have the perverse effect of perpetuating it. When this assumption gets ingrained, it affects everyone: teachers, students, and policy makers. The teacher would, through his or her manner of speech, voice, body language, and facial expressions, communicate this message to the students. The students in turn would quickly pick up on them. And policy makers would purposely dumb down the standards. Thus expectations become reality.

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