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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, August 02, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #29

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Systems (Cont'd)

The American System


America, like Malaysia, is a diverse nation and faces the same problems of integrating her various ethnic groups. Like Malaysia, the educational achievements of its various groups are closely related to ethnicity. Both countries have the same problem of increasing the English proficiency of a large segment of its student population who are not native English speakers.

Even though American students do not score at the top in TIMSS, nonetheless they turn out to be very productive, innovative, and creative. Many attribute the remarkable strength and buoyancy of the American economy to its highly talented workers. Ministers of Education from Singapore to Hungary trot to America to learn the secrets of its system.

The prominent feature of the American system is its decentralization. Up until recently, there was no equivalent of a federal Ministry of Education. Education is state responsibility, and that authority is further delegated to the local districts with elected trustees. Teachers in each district are paid by and are accountable to the local school board, not the state superintendent or the federal Secretary of Education in Washington, DC.

These districts vary in size from a few hundred students to one with literally millions as in Los Angeles and New York. They are also incredibly diverse. A school in downtown Los Angeles can have pupils speaking a hundred different languages! And that school will be very different from the one in Minnesota or even close by in affluent Santa Monica. The differences between a school in Ulu Kelantan and Ukay Heights are nothing compared to the varieties in America. Despite such a diversity, the system is remarkably successful in integrating and acculturating the students into the American mainstream, a point that should interest Malaysians.

Because of the tremendous diversity it is difficult to describe the typical American system. For purposes of discussion, I will use California as an example. Even within a single state there are considerable variations.

The American system consists of Kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12). Children enter at age 5. Some districts offer preschool beginning as early as age 3 or 4, especially in poorer areas. After kindergarten they move on to six years of elementary school, followed by two years of middle school, and four years of high school. American schools are all single session, typically ending in mid afternoon; preschools are half days.

In elementary school the pupils learn to read and write, do basic arithmetic, and explore the world around them. Creative arts like singing and drawing are emphasized. Pupils stay with the same teacher, except for subjects like music and special education. Some schools are experimenting with having the same teacher for the entire six years, to maintain continuity. You can be certain that the teachers know their students very well at such schools.

In middle school, the variety of subjects offered broadens, and students move from class to class, each taught by a different teacher. Students take a core curriculum of English, science, mathematics, and social studies. The rest of the school day is taken up by electives, which include such subjects as woodworking and creative arts. There may be a home teacher who will teach two or three of the core subjects in the homeroom. He or she also serves as a center point for the students, a stabilizing focus for them. Some schools have the same home teacher for both years.

High school is similar in that students move from class to class, with different teachers for the various subjects. Apart from the core curriculum, the students again have electives to meet their special needs and interests. Students also have to take a foreign language, although in many districts that exposure could begin earlier in middle or even elementary school.

Most American high schools are the typical large comprehensive variety offering wide range of subjects from agriculture and woodworking to auto shop and welding, as well as highly academic subjects like calculus, economics, and statistics. The more academic schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, the equivalent of first year college courses.

The student’s interests and future goals dictate the courses chosen, with guidance from the counselors. Those aspiring for highly selective colleges take four years of English, science, mathematics, and a foreign language, plus suitable electives in the social studies and fine arts. The transcripts would be greatly enhanced by taking these courses right up to the AP level. Those planning to enter the workforce upon graduation or whose academic goals are less lofty, would still have to take these core subjects except that instead of taking calculus for example, they would opt for “consumer math;” and instead of physics, a less demanding physical science.

The present large comprehensive schools were started in the 1950s and early 60s through the influence of James B. Conant, the former president of Harvard. Prior to that American schools were akin to cottage industries–small and scattered, and thought to be inefficient. The impetus for change was precipitated by the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. That shocked Americans into realizing how far behind they were in science and mathematics.

Merging these small schools into a single large campus was thought to be the most efficient (meaning, cheapest) way to educate as many students as possible. With a sufficiently large pool of students, the number of subjects offered could be expanded. It was also a reflection of the era when assembly line and “scientific” production championed by the likes of Charles Taylor were the rage. Implicit in that model is the lumping of all students together with no streaming. The assumption is that students learn from each other, the slower ones from their brighter classmates. The system works up to a point. To Conant, these comprehensive public schools also serve as a melting pot not only racially but also socially.

Increasingly today these giant educational factories are exacting their toll. Students feel alienated, disciplinary problems abound, and crowd control becomes a major issue. On many campuses there are metal detectors and armed policemen. And an irony that cannot be dismissed, these policemen earn more than the teachers! Columbine High School, Colorado, the scene of the deadly shootout a few years ago, is typical of such campuses with over 3,000 students.

This lack of streaming is more apparent than real. Many districts now have magnet schools and special GATE (gifted and talented) programs. Further, parents do their own streaming. Increasingly when people buy homes, the first question asked is, “How is the neighborhood school?” The high school at Palo Alto, California, regularly sends its top students to elite universities; meanwhile a stone’s throw away across the freeway in East Palo Alto, the story is very different.

The preceding describes the public system. America also has vigorous and extensive private schools run by churches and other organizations. For the most part they are academically oriented “prep” schools, meaning they “prepare” students for top colleges. Some like Groton and Exeter count among their graduates, luminaries in government, business, and the professions. They are also increasingly attracting many foreign students.

Next: Reform of American Schools

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