Eucation understandably is a touchy topic for many. We reminisce about better standards of the good old days and compare it with the state of public schools as we see them today.
Getting education up and roaring is challenging but not impossible. Out of 10,000 schools in the country, 128 are labelled high-performing. These are schools with excellent academic achievement, national and international awards, linked with other learning institutions and run by highly capable personalities.
They are not only located in affluent city centres, some are nestled deep in rural communities. So it begs the question: How did these schools make the cut?
To answer that, let me tell you what did not secure the success of all these 128 high-performing schools:
1. It is not about the facilities because these 128 schools have similar facilities as all the other normal schools. As much as computers, digital whiteboards and specialised buildings can make a difference, they are not the reason why the 128 schools produce quality of education compared to the rest. To repeat: All these top schools have similar if not less facilities then regular schools but they are still able to perform exceptionally well
2. It is not about the curriculum. The national curriculum is the piñata everyone wants to hit at. These high-performing schools follow the same curriculum but their students are able to produce stellar results
3. It is not about paying teachers more. Public school teachers are paid the same across the board. Yet teachers from high-performing schools are exemplary in their dedication to do more for the students.
I have been exposed to schools that bucked the trend and soared as champions. I am always eager to hear their story with the hope we can use their methodology as a template for the nation.
I want to train the spotlight on three schools that have inspired this article.
Sri KDU in Damansara is a private school that follows the national curriculum. The principal, Datin Chan is determined to make Sri KDU the country’s best. In the PISA 2012 assessment of schools from 65 countries, Sri KDU scored the highest among the 164 participating schools in Malaysia. Their scores for maths, science and reading were comparable to the national scores of Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea.
What is their secret? I spent half a day with Datin Chan and poured through their teaching manuals and processes. One key initiative stood out. The school is focussed on getting teachers aligned to high demands on quality.
At the end of every school year, all teachers are required to return for 14 days during the holidays to prepare for the new year.
They are expected to religiously follow the curriculum and stick to a proven teaching methodology. Every day they send an email or message to parents outlining lessons and homework. Every day the students must complete their homework.
Another excellent example is Sekolah Rendah Ulu Lubai in the interiors of Sarawak. Infecting parents and teachers with a fervour to transform the school, principal Jaul anak Buyau directed the school out of the doldrums to become one of the top performing primary schools in the country despite odds like barebones infrastructure. Clearly this rural school is not dependent on high-tech facilities to dictate the quality of student outcomes.
Last week I visited SK Taman Megah (SKTM) in Petaling Jaya. Led by the passionate principal, Ms Khoo, I was treated to student performances of choral speaking, Ramayana musical, story-telling and Malay dances.
If I could pin down one differentiating takeaway from SKTM, it is Ms Khoo’s determination to include parents.
For every parent who has a complaint, she listens to find a resolution but in doing so, draws them in to be part of the solution. Whether it is dealing with water shortages or power trips, their complaints were turned into opportunities for collaboration.
Parents also pushed for a structured performing arts programme and volunteer to coach music, dance, poetry and art. When teachers were out to attend training sessions, the mothers and fathers help out in class. The PTA is energised and empowered to make sure no stones are left unturned if it meant the student benefits.
So in a nutshell, these four constellations must come together in alignment to make any school great:
• Principal. Ms Khoo cannot imagine doing anything else than what she is doing right now – serving at the school. It all boils down to the leader’s personal commitment to make changes and take responsibility
• Teachers. There’s no compromise in delivering in the classroom and teachers must be in full compliance in executing the curriculum
• Parents. The development of the child is not solely the responsibility of teachers. When I was a student my father was principal and teacher of our village school. He taught me in class and when I got home, he continued to teach
• Student. Nothing happens if the student does not want to study. It is important that the principal, teachers and parents focus on the child. At the centre of the constellation, the student is the hero in this story
A school’s transformation starts with the principal but doesn’t end with her. Once the principal ignites the momentum and it is then carried through by teachers, parents and students, that school is destined for greatness.
If I had my way, I would like to run a pilot by getting the best principal and subject teachers in the highest performing school and place them in the lowest one for say, a period of six months. I am willing to bet there will be significant increase in student performance.
People’s lives can be transformed and it begins in the school. There are no shortcuts, and everyone has a part to play.