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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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Improving The Odds For Our Disadvantaged Students

Improving The Odds For Our Disadvantaged Students
M. Bakri Musa

Students from a disadvantaged background face many challenges; thus it is not a surprise that they lag academically. This has always been true and accepted as normal. The consequence to this acceptance is that the students’ disadvantaged background becomes too ready an excuse for teachers and policymakers not to address the issue of widening educational achievement gap, blaming instead such factors as poverty and lack of parental involvement.

While those are relevant, there is much that schools, teachers and policymakers can do to turn disadvantaged students into “resilient” ones. A recent OECD study, Against The Odds. Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/6/12/47092225.pdf) confirms this. “Resilient” students, as defined by the study, are those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background relative to students in their country, and attain high scores by international standards.

Across OECD countries, nearly a third of disadvantaged students are resilient; in Finland and South Korea, nearly half. The bottom line, as the report confidently asserts, is: “Disadvantaged students can and often do defy the odds against them when given the opportunity to do so.” Note the report’s emphasis.

At first glance the report may be stating the obvious. We all can readily recall examples of those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have successfully overcome their many obstacles. Some would attribute their success to their innate ability, sheer grit, and unwavering determination. Those of humbler persuasion would generously credit other factors – talented teachers, superior schools, and opportune openings.

This OECD report marshals impressive data to support its contention that when the disadvantaged are given equal opportunities to learn, foster their self confidence, and effectively motivate them, they can exploit their potential. It then carefully collates and sensibly summarizes the experiences of those member countries that have successfully executed their strategies and achieved those desirable objectives.

Learning From OECD’s Experiences

Suitably adapted and with some enhancements, Malaysia could usefully adopt the findings of the OECD report. Granted, the disadvantaged in an OECD member country are a universe away physically, economically and in many other ways from their counterparts in Malaysia. Consider that in America students from poor families get free textbooks, transportations and school meals. They are also spared the expenses of uniforms and examination fees. Malaysian parents are burdened by these ancillary expenses. They make a mockery of our “free” schooling. A good beginning would be to get rid of such burdens.

We could go further and reward parents who pay attention to their children’s schooling. Brazil’s Bolsa Escola and Mexico’s Progresa pay parents if they were to keep their children in school. Such “Conditional Cash Transfer” initiatives are powerful incentives. If we pay our poor fishermen and rice farmers to keep their children at school, we would dramatically reduce the dropout rates. If we add a bonus in the form of extra payments if their children were to excel, then watch those parents become diligent in ensuring that their children attend school and do their homework.

A universality of the human trait is that we respond to incentives. The secret is to find the right one. For many, it is still cold cash.

The key finding of the OECD study is that resilient disadvantaged students attend more regular lessons at school than those who are not. Thus extend the hours of our rural schools to a full day, and increase the number of school days from the current 180 to 220 per year, as in Japan.

This means single-session schools. If these disadvantaged children are in school for much of the day, well fed, well taught and well supervised while there, then we could not care less if their parents were unable to help them with the homework or read to them at bedtime. Further, with an extended school day, the afternoon could be devoted to enriching extracurricular activities like athletics and fine arts. Thus instead of loitering in the afternoon or otherwise getting into mischief, they would be in school practicing their music or participating in sports. Those extracurricular activities help nurture a more wholesome development; they are also true and tried confidence builders.

Nurturing Self-Confidence

As for self-confidence, the OECD report emphasized the importance of instilling this, especially in disadvantaged children. This cannot be achieved merely by participating in cheerleading rallies and endlessly proclaiming our supposed glorious past.

Instead, and this is another key finding of the report, resilient students spend more time studying science. Excelling in science boosts their self-confidence; this in turn spills over in other areas. This benefit is particularly pronounced with disadvantaged students; the more disadvantaged they are, the more they benefited.

Resilient students spend more class hours on the subject. In France, Germany and the Netherlands these students spend an hour and 45 minutes more in science classes per week than disadvantaged low-achievers. Thus we must not only expand the school day of our rural schools, which are mostly attended by disadvantaged children, but also increase substantially the hours devoted to science classes. Their enhanced literacy in science, apart from boosting their self-confidence, would also greatly improve their employability later in life.

For disadvantaged Malay students, another effective way of boosting their self-confidence would be to enhance their English proficiency. Our leaders endlessly exhort our students to learn English, as if that can simply be wished upon or achieved by waving a magic wand. Instead we should, as the experience with science proficiency of resilient students in OECD countries demonstrates, devote more hours to the subject. Additionally, more subjects should be taught in English so students could practice their English skills outside their language classes. In this regard, the greatest burden of the recent decision to end the teaching of science and mathematics in English falls disproportionately on our rural (meaning, Malay) students, the very group our leaders profess to champion.

That fluency in English could greatly boost a student’s confidence is dramatically demonstrated in California. The state has a large number of immigrant children with severely disadvantaged backgrounds and who cannot speak English. In the days of bilingual education they would be taught in their mother tongue (most commonly Spanish) as well as English.

That policy ended with the passage of an “English Only” referendum in 1998. Today these students have to spend their first year in an English immersion class, and only when they are sufficiently fluent would they join the regular stream.

The results of that experiment are now clear. Whereas in the past these pupils would perpetually be handicapped by their limited English ability and remain at the bottom of their class right up to their final years in school, with the mandatory immersion classes, their ability to speak and write English improved quickly. That boosted their self-confidence, which in turn spills over onto other areas. Today those students readily mix in the playground with the other children and fully engaged socially and other ways while at school. In the past they would segregate themselves as they felt inadequate; they had low self-esteem because of their language handicap.

Today no one would wish to return to the bad old days of bilingual education, most of all those children and their parents. California’s success, now widely acknowledged, directly contradicts the opinion of a widely quoted UNESCO study that purported to show that mother tongue-based bilingual education has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.

The self-confidence of Malay students would similarly be boosted if they were to be fluent in English. We could achieve this by replicating California’s experience of English-immersion classes. We had something akin to that with our “Special Malay” and “Remove” classes of yore. Better yet, bring back the old English schools back to our rural areas where the need for enhanced English fluency is the greatest.

If we supplement that with an increase in the hours they stay in school, enrich the curriculum to devote more hours to science, and have a full offering of extracurricular activities to include sports and the performing arts like music and drama, then

While parental and social factors are important, there is much that our schools and teachers can and should do to improve the current abysmal academic performance of our kampong kids. The key lies with the teachers and schools. In the next essay I will explore the experiences of those countries that have highly effective schools and how they have managed to attract the best to be teachers.

Learn from the experiences of the OECD countries. If we adopt the measures discussed here, then watch the miracles unfolding in our rural students. We can break the link between disadvantaged background and low academic achievement.

Next: Attracting the Best To Teaching


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