Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A superior American School System?

Why the American Education System is superior to the smartest of our Smart School System

(FIrst posted in April 2007)

Lately there have been a lot of talks about smart school or making our school smarter (pembestarian sekolah), and not the kids I guess! I guess this is due to the so-called smart school conference that is going in KL right now. In the news last week (Thu nite 19/4) was one of the directors of the smart school program (most likely of the Education Ministry) blowing her own trumpet; on how when she was in Philadelphia on a similar conference, the authority there in the US was amazed about our smart school program and all the facilities that we have here in Malaysia. “Things they don’t even have in the US,” she said, condescendingly. 

Wow, I am so proud, our schools are better than schools in the US. Tabik Puan. Yeah right! Typical Malaysia Boleh attitude. I have heard on too many occasions how we keep on telling ourselves that people from another planet think so highly of us! We love making statements like that, especially when it is good for our ego. You go to a conference in the US for 3 days and that gives you an authority to speak on behalf of the American government and people.
I smiled wryly. Assuming that she is correct, I think this another thing that is bad about us. We only think of the physical facilities and never of the human aspect of it - of the planning, the training and the commitment and to be honest, on how we, in general, view the education process of our children (i.e education is not a burden to the government but an investment, education is not about making money from school and unversity fees etc etc). Oh, and don’t forget our (exam-oriented) syllabi. Call it by any other name, but bunga tahi ayam will always have a stinking smell! (Sorry...but on the other hand, the Kemboja is still as sweet especially if planted in the graveyards!)
In 1998 Arif, my eldest went to primary school for the first time for his standard 1. For a couple of days I was there in the school in Kuala Ampang. On the very first day, the teacher was already shouting at her students (basically to keep them quiet), and within a week, the kids were starting to memorize the multiplication tables.
Three months later we left for the US, and my two sons had the opportunity to go to the US school (Arif at Lloyd R Ferguson Elementary in League City, TX (near NASA) and Akmal at League City Elementary for pre-schoolers).
Caption: The location of LR Ferguson Elementary school in Clear Creek and League City (near Houston). It is only a few miles from NASA HQ and is located near the scenic Kemah. The picture was taken during a visit I made during the school hour in 1999. Note the classroom arrangements compared to ours. Ferguson elementary has a student-to-teacher ratio of 17:1 while Akmal's League City Elementary has a ratio of 14:1. Compare that with Hussein Onn secondary school of ~35-45:1. Our schools are better? You be the judge. (MRSM KB during my time has a student ratio of 24:1 while MRSM Merbok has a ratio of 23:1. Not bad eh MARA?)
Let me relate this story. One day, Arif came back with a note from his teacher requesting that he brings a hose and a wire hanger. I was puzzled with the instruction, went to K-Mart looking for the garden hose. Well, at US$25, I was not willing to spend on it. So I took the note to the department secretary, Jane, and asked her about the hose. She was puzzled herself, but told me she will find out.
An hour later, she came to my room looking very pleased that she had solved the mystery. “Panty hose, Rahman,” she told me, “Your son should be bringing a panty hose to school!” Ah well, I should have known better. Panty hose is only 99 cents a set.
The next day, my son brought back – guess what! – fish made up from the panty hose, and the wire hanger. What will the school and teacher think of next? To me this is the creative side that education system in America is trying to impart to their students, while we in Malaysia are too regimented with memorizing multiplication tables. 

On the very first week, mind you! 

Every week Arif and Akmal would be bringing back some work of art that I would never have thought of doing with my kids. No wonder American engineers are more creative than their Malaysian counterparts! They were taught lateral and creative thinking from elementary level. If you ask me, the wire hanger is for hanging the panty hose!
Because of that, I think very highly of the American education system – it is worthy to be emulated in Malaysia. You know when I think about this, I think this was what En Wahab Alwi had envisaged for MRSM when he chose to emulate the American system as a model for MRSM (amongst others The Bronx School for the Gifted in Science in New York City). We were nearly there, my friends, we were nearly there, I must admit, but for the curriculum and the SRP and SPM exams that we still have to sit for! (The American system was dismantled after a few years; we are not known for having the willpower to stick with anything!)
Caption: Arif and Mrs Lancaster in their classroom. I was very impressed with her patience and the facilities in the class, unlike the bare minimum we have in our classrooms in primary schools. Trust me when I say what they have there is so much better than the best of our best primary schools. Oh, and the red t-shirt he was wearing in this picture, that was part of the class projects. The pic on the right is the birth cert of a 'scarecrow' they did as a class project. Unfortunately we lost the 'fish' project a few years ago, so can't post them here.
I once had an opportunity to talk to his class teacher, Mrs Lancaster. While we were chatting in her class, one student of Vietnamese descent went to her. Now, if we were in Malaysia, I am sure the teacher would shout at him or at the very least told him to sit down and do his work while the teacher is talking to a parent. Instead, she went down on her knees (to be at the same level with the child), and said, “Yes, dear, what do you need?” I was astonished by her very friendly response to her student. And for a full minute, she gave him her full attention. If only teachers in Malaysia can be more attentive and supportive to each student in the manner Mrs Lancaster had for her students. Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming entirely to the teachers – they had too many students in the first place (read the captions above). I think we simply need to change our outlook at how we educate our children. 

This whole system need to be revamped. Parents included!
Caption: Akmal and his new found friend on the very first day at school and with his teacher Mrs Wolff. This class is for pre-K and it is part of the League City Elementary School (i.e. not a private kindergarten. Yes, they have pre-school session of 4 hours a day for a child 4-5 years old. Here in Malaysia, the government takes no responsibility for children in that age group and we had to rely on private kindergarten to do the job for us). Everything was free and so was the bus (you know the yellow American school bus). We didn't have to fork out anything - no school fees, no uniform to buy, no coop fee and other miscellaneous fees to be paid. Education is free - the way it should be. Food is given to those entitled for it (and that includes Arif and Akmal). Here the government just went back on their words on a free text books from next year!
As for Akmal, then a four-year old, I was at school on the first day towards the end of his pre-school (pre-K) session in League City just to ensure he would take the right bus home So I waited at the side of the school, watching Akmal from afar, i.e. basically out of his sight. Soon a teacher would come over to me, inquiring about my presence there in the school compound (which was not fenced). She was very polite though. But that basically tells you on how alert the teachers and staff were on the schoolchildren safety.
Two teachers for a preschool class of less than 20 students. Mind you they were not rookie teachers.
When we arrived at KLIA (we left using Subang Airport) for the first time, while I was admiring the marble interior of KLIA, what my son said will forever etch in my mind. “Abah, why KL has such a nice airport but has lousy school, while Houston has such a lousy airport but has very nice school?”he asked me.
Ah well, what can I say? I didn’t teach him to be to be so critical, but how right he was. It is all about priority my son, and obviously currently education is not a priority. We are putting on the emphasis on the wrong things - biggest this, longest that. (I must admit tho in the 70s and early 80s, the government of the day had their priority right.) But that my sons, is for another blog!

(Arif was so observant. Houston’s Bush International Airport (IAH) was in a perennial state of construction when we were there. I think even in 2005 it still was still in the same state.)
I don’t claim everything is perfect in the States and I don’t claim I know everything either. I am not a product of the American education system, nor do I work for an American company, so I know I am not biased towards their education system. I do know that one swallow doesn't make a summer either. As with any system, you do have faults here and there. But seeing what Arif and Akmal went through in elementary schools there and here in KL and from my own experience (and I don't believe smart school will lead to the dismantling of of our exam-oriented syllabi) led me to my conclusion as articulated in this piece. But this piece is not meant to be a PhD thesis!
I have read the paper titled The Malaysian Smart School - An MSC Flagship Application. I think even the title is too much about technology, and it is too idealistic. As with any Malaysian project, I worry about how long it will last and its maintenance.

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