American schools offer a positive and safe environment for kids. The curriculum and level of learning in schools are constantly monitored by government bodies too. We could learn a few lessons from their system
Most American kids, even the rich, attend government schools in the United States. Education up to the 12th grade is free of cost. The medium of instruction is invariably English.
US schools have infrastructure better than our universities. With urban spaces least cluttered, zoning regulations very strict and almost every child being ferried to school by transport, the studying environment for children is highly safe. The per pupil annual spending by the US government is 10,499 USD.
These are a few aspects that bear no comparison with the scenario in India where resources are scarce and there is confusion of multiple linguistic mediums besides the three-language formula. Additionally, our system has to grapple with all kinds of divides such as the rich-poor, urban-rural, slum-upscale, English-vernacular, and traditional-modern syllabus.
Granted that America is a first world country and India is still under the ‘developing nations’ category. But some aspects that lend the American school education system a cutting edge, need to be emulated. Lack of resources is certainly not critical when it comes to emulating those aspects.
Last June, when my daughter took her first child for admission into the Maercker School in education district no. 60 in the Willowbrook neighbourhood of Chicago, I decided to accompany her out of curiosity to have a firsthand understanding of the American school system. This set me on an exploration taking me to almost 10 schools across the US.
What impresses you about American schools is the overall focus on making the child extremely comfortable with the school’s ambience. The enrolment form is accompanied by another form eliciting information on the linguistic skills of the child.
Parents are asked to mention the languages in which the child communicates with parents, siblings, nannies (or caretakers), peers in a gathering and with playmates. This prepares the ground for a homogenising exercise in which the kids are divided into two groups; those who are proficient in English and the ones who need special coaching before they attain the proficiency to pursue the regular syllabus. A six-month homogenisation exercise brings up the latter group on par with the former.
The teacher-student ratio is mostly 1:20, at the most and ideally 1:17. Chairs and desks are arranged as the occasion demands, sometimes in a crescent like fashion and in rows of twos or threes. If need be, the children squat on the floor (which is mainly wooden.). The value orientation begins with the kids being taught to lace their communication with five magic words such as please, sorry, pardon me, thank you and excuse me.
Some schools inculcate values clubbed under the acronym TERRIFIC — Trust-Equality-Respect-Responsibility-Fairness-Integrity-Caring. Teachers explain these values with the help of anecdotes. There are no fixed set of stories. Teachers are free to choose such stories from a variety of resources including their faith and religious books.
Teachers are required to constantly upgrade their knowledge and instructional methodology. Imad Tibbi, Principal of Genesee Academy in Flint in the state of Michigan says: “Teachers are required to secure re-certification every three years from the State Education Department.”
Doing leads to internalising
Thanks to improved teaching methods, American students learn to internalise concepts when it is put to action. They grasp even the most nettlesome concepts in Natural Sciences and Humanities, the lack of which compels a child in India to mug up lessons instead of comprehending. This is the hallmark of the American education system.
At the Canton School in Ann Arbor (Michigan), the children were working on book writing which involved designing a title page for the book and making cutouts of the characters they had envisioned for the content of their book. Students of a geography class were working on a cutout of the map of South America, marking the borders and courses of rivers and fixing their flags. Fifth graders were engaged in organising a writers’ workshop while another class was engaged in preparing a concept map for healthy living and ecosystem.
S Pembe, Principal at Canton Academy, a private school in a Detroit suburb, says that the American system does not insist on adoption of the prescribed syllabus, but there are fixed standards in matters of linguistic proficiency, knowledge of Science and Mathematical skills. Evaluation is strict. Value-orientation is embedded in every chapter. Diversity of existence in America is emphasised both through textbooks and programmes. There is simply no rote learning.
Says Nader, Principal of Iklas School in another Detroit neighbourhood, run by an Afro-American community, “You are free to teach kids that Columbus was not necessarily the one who discovered America because there were people in America even before Columbus who made the continent known to others!”
Laura, Principal of Rahmah School in Baltimore (Maryland state) says, “Since the majority of kids in the area are of Indian, Arabic and Afro-American origin, additional languages such as Arabic, Hindi and Urdu can be opted for in my school. Safi Khan, an American of Indian origin, who runs Al-Huda School in College Park neighbourhood of Baltimore, says the area has nearly 30,000 children of Indian origin and the school could include additional languages and even chapters of history of the countries to which the kid belonged to.
Khan says most parents were earlier afraid that their kids would suffer if they attended a school where linguistic curriculum carried some additional languages. “But we have proved them wrong. The school has won the accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools (CES-MSA), a 120-year old body offering accreditation based on its rating of Quality Assurance,” she adds.
Whatever may be the curriculum pattern, all schools will have to subject a report under the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for periodic assessment of students’ progress conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the US Department of Education.
The assessment covers areas of mathematics, reading/writing, science and more. NAEP results are released in the form of a ‘Nation’s Report Card’. This document becomes a reference point for policymakers. The NAEP assessment is conducted on representative samples of students at grades 4, 8 and 12 for the main assessments and samples of students at ages 9, 13 and 17 years for long-term trend assessments.
These grades and ages were chosen because they represent critical junctures in academic achievement. The deplorable state of government schools in India urges us to learn a lot from American schools, where efficiency of teachers and the level of learning are under constant monitoring. We need to make the schools and the pedagogy child-friendly.