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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 09, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #30

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

Reform of American Schools


There are many recent attempts at reforming the schools, but Conant’s comprehensive schools remain the staple to this day. In 1983 a committee chaired by David Gardner, later to become president of the prestigious University of California System, produced its landmark report, A Nation At Risk. The Imperative for Educational Reform, in which it laments the declining academic rigor of American high schools that fill their curriculum with soft subjects like consumer math and driver ed. “The educational foundations of our society,” the report notes, “are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

Gardner’s report was commissioned in response to the challenge coming from what was then widely accepted as the rising East, in particular Japan. Gardner’s committee lacked enforcing power; it was merely advisory. As a result nothing much happened.

Since then there have been many other reform movements. Though they have not caught on nationally, nonetheless in their aggregate, they produce far greater changes. These include the voucher system, charter schools, and the movement of returning to the basics, in particular the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). Vouchers are meant to empower poor children trapped in lousy school districts. With vouchers these students would be free to enroll in any school, public or private. Presently the system works well in some districts (Milwaukee) where the vouchers are restricted to poor families. Elsewhere the voucher system is entangled in protracted lawsuits. California voters rejected the system because they believed it would simply subsidize those currently enrolled in private schools. The California initiative would more likely be palatable if it had been restricted to the poor, as in Milwaukee.

My concern with unrestricted vouchers is that they would perpetuate if not promote self-segregation, with Jewish parents sending their children to Jewish schools, Arab parents to Arabic schools, Serbians to Serb’s. A generation hence and America would be like the Middle East and the Balkans.

CES, unlike the other reform movements, was started by educators and teachers rather than citizen activists or politicians. Theodore Sizer, a longtime teacher and former headmaster of Phillips Academy, a prestigious New England prep school, started the movement to revamp the way schools teach. Instead of the present factory and assembly-like module system, students would be divided into groups and taught by a team of teachers. The idea is to dismantle the artificial boundaries separating the different academic disciplines and have the teachers communicate with each other more. Thus instead of one teacher teaching chemistry and being oblivious of what the others are doing in physics or history, with team teaching every teacher is made aware of each other’s lesson plans, and their teaching would be interrelated and integrated.

A major feature of CES is that for graduation, students must present an exhibition on a topic of their choice for each subject. This is comparable to the student’s portfolio in a fine arts academy. I am familiar with CES as one of my sons attended such a school and I was on the governing board. One of his exhibitions (for chemistry) was on the internal combustion engine in history, which neatly combined elements of mathematics (laws of thermodynamics), history, and social science in addition to chemistry. The unique feature of CES is that it works within the system; there is no need for special legislation or increased funding. CES involves rearranging the present elements. To join CES, the teachers would have to petition for it and then agree to the guidelines. Unlike other reforms that are often forced upon the working professionals, CES is teacher-driven, which explains its remarkable success and acceptance.

Many American high schools work closely with nearby colleges so ambitious students could simultaneously take college courses for credits. Bard College goes further with an innovative program of fully integrating the last two years of school with the first two years of college for highly talented and motivated students.

There is no national or standard exit examination in America. Each teacher assesses the students on his or her own terms. The school district lays down the graduation requirements. Students are continuously assessed throughout the school year rather than in one final examination. Even their homework and other assignments are graded and contribute to this final score. The student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) represents the yearlong assessment and not a snapshot as one would get with a single Malaysian type end-of-year examination.

There are standardized national tests like the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), Achievement Test (AT), and AP. Many universities use both standardized test scores and GPAs in evaluating students. There is a trend among top-ranked colleges of doing away with SAT.

This sentiment has professional backing. The American Psychological Association in its guidelines for test use specifically prohibits basing any consequential judgment about individuals on a single test score. The reason is the significant margin for error. The solution is to use multiple measures, including test scores, GPAs, teachers’ recommendations as well as reviewing the student’s portfolio. For admission to select music, drama, and design schools, the student’s portfolio is the determining factor.

SAT does serve a purpose; it allows comparisons between schools. It does not say much about the academic rigor (or at least the rigor of its testing) of a school if collectively it’s “A” students score poorly at SAT. SAT and similar tests serve to assess the schools as much as the students.

For the individual student however, the predictive value of such standardized tests is more problematic. There are few students who excel in class but perform poorly in these “filling-in-the-blanks” tests. Texas and California now accept the top 5 percent of graduates from each school into their elite universities regardless of their SAT scores.

Doing away with standardized tests creates its own problems because of the variability of school quality. The less selective California State University (CSU) System does not require SAT; it relies exclusively on GPAs. Consequently half of its freshmen have to take remedial classes in English and mathematics.

Next: American Universities

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