Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Education, Global, Globalisation, North America

Malaysia Applies Lessons Learned from U.S. Education System

UXBRIDGE, May 26 2012 (IPS) - The United States has simultaneously some of the highest quality and most troubled educational systems in the world. The dichotomy is inspiring countries like Malaysia to learn from examples in the United States in order to help them figure out how to turn the worst into the best.

Although half a world away, Malaysia’s education system faces many of the same challenges as the system in the United States does, such as extremely high student drop-out rates, especially among students from poor families, says Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY).

“We know that graduates have double the incomes, have healthier children, and are better citizens than drop-outs,” says Zimpher, who pioneered the “cradle to career” approach of the Strive public-private collaborative in Cincinnati, Ohio, which boosted public school test scores and college enrolment by more than 10 percent.

The Strive Partnership brings leaders from across different sectors to help ensure that children are successful in school, enroll in and graduate from some form of postsecondary education, and enter a career, among other goals, according to the program’s website.

Graduates are the primary drivers of successful economies, Zimpher says.

Since one of Malaysia’s goals is to become a middle-income country by 2020, with a knowledge-based economy, education is a key to achieving this ambitious goal, A. H. Zakri, science advisor to the Malaysian prime minister, tells IPS. “Student drop-out rates are high, especially in poor rural areas,” he adds.

The high school graduation rate in the United States is 18th among the top 24 industrialised nations, and more than one million secondary school students drop out every year. Fixing the long-broken public education system has seemed impossible.

Yet the Strive model has been successful because it gets commitment from important actors in different sectors to work on a common agenda for solving a specific social problem, according to a recent paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Malaysia, like the United States, has too many poorly paid, under-qualified teachers and underfunded public schools. Nor is education highly valued in many regions, Zakri says. While Malaysia is prepared to invest heavily in education – university fees are already partially subsidized – it wants everyone to be involved in the process.

What Zakri particularly likes about the the Strive initiative is that it brings together families, community, business, teachers and officials to help children do well in school. “It’s a collective approach to education that makes education everyone’s business.”

Strategic buy-in from hundreds of partners at all levels throughout the community is essential, says Zimpher. A reliable or continuous collaboration between pre-kindergarten, kindergarten to Grade 12, higher education, and the transition into the workforce is also crucial.

“Kids may do well in pre-school, for example, but unless that pre-school is working with the local school district to align expectations, most of them won’t be ready for kindergarten,” she explains.

The lack of collaboration between pre-kindergarten, kindergarten to Grade 12, higher education are the primary causes of “leaks in the education pipeline” – youths leaving the educational system before completion.

The Strive approach is being deployed in 27 states and the District of Columbia in the United States. Malaysia will be the first country to apply it at a national level.

Pilot Strive programs will be set up across Malaysia, aimed at helping the transformation of Malaysia’s economy, with greater human capital in science, technology and innovation, said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in a statement.

“This initiative will also address the lack of student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics due to poor teaching of the subject matter…a lack of priority given to the subjects by schools….and unattractive prospects for science-qualified graduates,” Razak said.

Since Malaysia and New York state face similar problems, they will share experiences through an alliance with the State University of New York and its Cradle to Career program and the New York Academy of Sciences STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education Initiative.

Zakri acknowledges the U.S. education system is in trouble but adds that it is “trying to get (its) act together”. But as for which systems and programs are most successful, however, for both Malaysia and the United States, only time will tell.


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