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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Lesson From America's Top Schools

Every year in May, Newsweek magazine publishes a list of what it considers to be America’s best high schools. It does not surprise me when the exclusive “prep” academies or the super selective magnet schools make the rank. However, when a public or inner city school is on it, I take note. Not only is that rare, it also represents a truly significant achievement on the part of the school, its teachers, students, and parents.

This year Preuss, a public charter school in San Diego, California, ranked ninth. Earlier it had been designated a “California Distinguished School.” The school is unique in that admission is by lottery (meaning, random with no self selection or bias) and restricted to poor students whose parents have not attended a four-year college. Being a public day school, parents do not have to pay any additional tuition fees.

The school prepares its students to meet the rigorous demands of selective universities. This year an astounding over 95 percent of its graduates secured admission to top universities and colleges. These students would also be the first in their family to enter college.

Creating an excellent school is not the challenge, especially when you have ample resources and choices of students and parents. High tuition fees alone would discourage those not sufficiently motivated. Then you would practically guarantee success by admitting only students from families with proven academic achievements.

Such a school may be successful, but it could not claim much credit. It brings minimal added value. Nor could the teachers bask in the glory. Those students would have done well regardless of which schools they attended; their parents would ensure that.

The Lessons From Preuss

Preuss offers lessons for Malaysia in two respects: one, how to educate our brightest students, and two, how to teach those we deem “unmotivated.”

For example, our residential schools admit only the brightest Bumiputra students and at an early age (right after Primary Six). These schools are also expensive, consuming more than their fair share of resources. Yet their aggregate achievements lag behind those day schools that are not selective with their admissions. These regular day schools are also considerably cheaper to run.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fate and achievement (or lack thereof) of those attending rural schools need no further comment. Theirs is truly a national disgrace and tragedy.

The government’s solution has been to build even more residential schools to give opportunities to more students. Unfortunately, these new schools are merely clones of existing ones. They repeat the same mistakes and then use the same excuses to rationalize their failures. There is no attempt at correcting the deficiencies of or enhancing existing models.

As for rural schools, the government has essentially written them off. As those students are not children of the elite, their parents lack the political clout to demand more. Come election time and they would be satisfied with mere promises of new labs and computers. Meanwhile their children remain stuck with inadequate facilities, crowded classrooms, and inadequately trained teachers.

The government’s solution has been the lowering of standards and resorting to rigid quotas so these students could enter universities. There, the failed pattern would be repeated, this time at a much higher level and with far greater consequences, quite apart from the expensive price tag. Those poor students would now have to bear permanently the destructive emotional scar of crushed, falsely raised hopes.

A smarter solution would have been to provide such schools with competent teachers, especially that of science, mathematics, and English. Double their salaries if need be. It escapes me that while the ministry has no difficulty producing a glut of teachers in Islamic and Malay Studies, but when it comes to training teachers of English, science and mathematics, the authorities could never exhaust their excuses.

I would have expected that we would have by now dozens of English-medium teachers’ colleges to train such teachers, especially since we are teaching science and mathematics in English and emphasizing English as a subject. This simple solution eludes the ministry’s planners.

High Expectations

Preuss is a collaborative effort between the local school district and the University of California, San Diego. Over 80 percent of the students are from under-represented minorities, in particular Blacks and Hispanics.

Instead of resorting to the usual stereotypes as excuses for these students’ academic failures, Preuss made many innovations to cater to their special needs. Thus the school year was extended to 198 days, up from the traditional 180, and the school day lengthened to 396 minutes from the usual 360. Class size was reduced to 25, compared to the district average of 34. Students log a total of nearly 75,000 instructional minutes, compared to the State requirement of 64,800.

The school successfully encouraged a high percentage of its students to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. According to its website, the school “encourages a climate of high expectations and a strong academic culture, with a focus on personalization of instruction.” Hence tutoring is readily available. The curriculum is both rich and broad. Apart from fine arts, music and drama, students are encouraged to be involved in the community.

Preuss is located on the UCSD campus. Thus students and teachers could avail themselves to the vast resources of the university. The school in turn provides excellent research materials for the university professors.

Preuss could serve as a model for Malaysia. Instead of the old matrikulasi program, our universities could have their own out-reach high schools on their campuses catering to poor rural students whose parents have not attended college.

Parental Involvement

Preuss is a day school, meaning it does not have to divert resources to non-educational activities like feeding and housing the students, expensive chores residential schools have to contend with. More importantly, these students remain under their parents’ influence and not uprooted from the family at a tender age.

It is universally acknowledged that active parental involvement is the single most important factor in ensuring a child’s success at school. Malaysian national schools have poor students’ achievements because of this lack of parental participation. Parental involvement at residential schools is even less, as such schools are far away from the students’ home.

There are many ways of encouraging parents to be engaged in their children’s school activities. The simplest would be to make them feel welcome on campus. The other is to communicate effectively and regularly with them, and to take them in your confidence. Preuss has monthly newsletters to parents and regular activities involving them. Acknowledging that many of the parents are Hispanic, the newsletter is also partly written in Spanish.

Preuss goes further. It mandates that parents volunteer for at least 15 hours annually. Attending Parent-Teacher meetings would count towards the volunteer hours. At its recent parent-teacher dinner dance, the parents provided the food, decorations and arrangements. Such parental involvement contributes greatly to the schools’ success, quite apart from defraying the costs.

Those students at Preuss would not have reached their full potential and such heights of achievements had they attended the regular public school. Then the excuses used by all – themselves, parents, teachers, and society – to rationalize the failure would also be equally predictable. Preuss has truly “added value” to the lives of these young men and women.

The lessons from Preuss are applicable equally to both our expensive elite residential schools as well as those substandard schools in rural areas. We cannot afford to waste the talent of our young. They should all be given every opportunity to reach their full potential whether they live in the cities or kampongs, and whether they are the children of ministers or farmers.


Blogger Unknown said...

Pak Bakri,

Sambil melihat bintang diangkasa jangan lupa rumput yang dipijak.

Sila baca buku ini. Harap tak lupa pula dengan Bahasa Melayu.

Tajuk: Mengapa Kami Bantah. Penggunaan Bahasa Inggeris bagi Mengajarkan Sains dan Matematik.
Penyusun: Professor Emeritus Dr Abdullah Hassan.
ISBN :ISBN 983-42179-0-0
Penerbit: Persatuan Penterjemah Malaysia 2007.


1. kata aluan ketua kumpulan prihatin.
2. pencapaian sakti melayu malaysia 1958-2002: sebuah tragedi dalam peradaban melayu moden.
3. pendirian bersama para profesor sakti seluruh malaysia terhadap dasar pendidikan sains dan matematik sekolah dalam bahasa inggeris.
4. bahasa inggeris sebagai bahasa pengantar sains dan matematik: mengapa ditentang? soalan yang selalu ditanyakan.
5. bahasa melayu akan pupus.
6. analisis beberapa isu utama sosiobudaya bangsa dan negara.
7. nasionalisme dan perjuangan bahasa.
8. penerimaan pengajaran sains dan matematik dalam bahasa inggeris: konflik antara dua darjat.
9. bukan sekadar bahasa.
10. resolusi seminar agenda melayu.

3:59 AM  

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