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Livening Up Today’s Lesson, Courtesy of Uncle Sam

Peter Farruggio Comment: (sent as a letter to editor)

The article's description of the student-centered, active teaching methods promoted by US government contractors in Indonesian schools highlights a bitter irony for many of us American educators and education researchers. It is heartening to know that the federal government pays to train teachers in Indonesia, and Cambodia, and Pakistan to use pedagogical methods that build competencies relevant to their students' everyday lives and that encourage the demonstration of knowledge and skills in different contexts, instead of just passing on facts. Such pedagogy, generally known as "constructivism," has been shown to be effective for low income minority children in the US by a strong, consistent body of research since the 1970s.

But here's the bitter irony: teachers in most low income American schools are literally prevented from using this effective constructivist pedagogy, due to the highjacking of public education by the high-stakes testing juggernaut of the 1990s and the sadly misnamed federal No Child Left Behind law of 2001. With these mandates, the education testocrats have turned most public schools into anti-intellectualist "test-prep" factories that emphasize "kill and drill" style lessons and the low level memorization of facts. American teaching has reverted to retrograde, 1950s vintage behaviorism, more suited to training dogs and pigeons than to enabling children to develop their minds.

I hope that your article serves to encourage readers to think about the hypocrisy of the US educational establishment, and then to act to change things so that American schoolchildren may benefit, like Indonesian students, from state of the art pedagogy.

By Jane Perlez

WLINGI, Indonesia, Aug. 3 — In the first-grade classroom of Wening Sripeni, a diminutive teacher in head scarf and neck-to-ankle dress, the 6-year-olds bubble over with answers, a show of hands at every question about an Indonesian family.

“That’s Grandpa,” said a voice from the back.

What does he like to do? “He likes to read,” said another.

Who is this? Ms. Sripeni asked, pointing to a baby with a book in a bathtub. There were a lot of giggles at the juxtaposition of a baby and a book.

“So you can see the baby likes to do the same thing as Grandpa,” Ms. Sripeni said. “Reading is very important.”

Such back and forth, and especially mirth, are unusual in Indonesia’s schools, where rows of desks, a blackboard and chalk, and a stern teacher dispensing strict discipline are the norm.

But it is different at this elementary school tucked among the rice fields here in Java, the most-populous island of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. This school is participating in a drive by the United States to energize primary education here, starting with 1,000 schools and eventually increasing to more than 2,500, still a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of elementary schools in Indonesia.

Contending that lively lessons, engaged teachers and interested parents can promote tolerance and counteract extreme Islamic views, the Bush administration has made promoting education a focus of assistance to friendly Muslim countries through the United States Agency for International Development.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq have all received increased American funds in the last several years for building schools and training teachers and administrators.

Indonesia, a moderate Muslim country, was added to the list, American officials said, because of concerns about a growing streak of fundamentalism among graduates of privately run Islamic religious schools, known as pesantren.

The effort in Indonesia is different from that in the other countries, American officials said. The money is spent chiefly on training, not bricks and mortar, believing that encouraging good teaching strikes at a more fundamental issue.

Nearly $9 million has been set aside for creating a version of “Sesame Street” with Indonesian characters and situations. It is scheduled to make its debut next year.

President Bush personally announced the $157 million, five-year program during a visit to Bali in 2003. There was initial skepticism over whether the money would mean much in the country’s famously corrupt education bureaucracy. There was also some concern over the prospect of American meddling in the country’s schools.

To discourage corruption, no money is provided directly to schools.

At the outset, the very schools that the United States were most concerned about — the privately run religious schools that teach about 20 percent of the students — were declared off limits. The government also said that the Americans were not to change the curriculum.

But the government has allowed the Americans to offer their training in state-run religious schools, like the Tegalasri madrasa near here, which receives funds from the Education Ministry as well as the Religious Affairs Department.

For the first time, the madrasa, which teaches children from a poor farming community about six miles from Ms. Sripeni’s school, got higher scores on the national exam, said Syaiful Ridwan, the principal.

“We’ve gone up from 7.18 to 7.63,” out of a possible score of 10, he said. Enrollment at the madrasa was increasing, he said, as parents heard about the good results.

He said, though, that the American help was not the only factor in the turnaround. The teachers, he said, had also acquired a greater variety of teaching skills by attending training courses.

But teachers were motivated by better salaries, he said, made possible by an increase in national school financing. The extra money from the national government had allowed him to increase the lowest salaries from $15 a month to $30, which is still very low.

Because of the parents’ low incomes, lesson materials were sparse at the madrasa, and it was difficult to pay the extra electricity bill to operate five computers daily for one-hour after-school classes.

In first grade, Dwi Ernawati, a new teacher struggled to keep the attention of students, who were working in groups of four and five. They were supposed to make simple sentences by gluing tiny letters to a piece of paper.

Two grandfathers of her students stood at the back of the class as parent helpers, but they seemed not to be of much assistance.

In contrast, in Ms. Sripeni’s classroom — in an economically better-off part of the school district and where the Religious Affairs Department is not involved in the school — two young mothers were on hand. They efficiently passed around paper and kept an eye on the rowdier children.

To organize the training of the Indonesian teachers, the United States hired a Washington consulting firm, Research Triangle Institute, which specializes in running American education programs abroad.

The company hired an American with Indonesian experience to run the teacher training, and he in turn hired a small army of Indonesian educators in the provinces to conduct the training workshops.

The training manuals deal with such basics as how to organize a classroom — in small friendly groups of tables rather than rows — to how to stimulate classroom discussion to how to study nature.

Ms. Sripeni, a 17-year veteran teacher who seemed to have a special vitality all her own, said she liked the ideas sprinkled through the manuals.

Her classroom had no blackboard. Instead she had arranged a pastiche of posters: a chart of the professions of the parents; a list of the five religions of Indonesia; the praying times for Muslims; the class attendance record; the “magic tree” of family connections.

“The children are very creative,” Ms. Sripeni said. “I’m just reacting to their demands. Now their development is very fast. It used to take a long time to get the children to read one sentence. Now they can read a page quite quickly.”

The final test of whether the $157 million has been well invested, educators say, will be whether the new ideas endure. Once the five-year grant is spent, local educators are supposed to be familiar enough with the techniques to continue promoting them, but the outcome is still open to question.

Mr. Syaiful, the madrasa principal, has been chosen by the American Embassy in Jakarta to visit the United States, as a reward for his good work. But with reviews of the participating schools not yet complete, there was no decision yet on whether the school would continue to get the teacher training next year.

— Jane Perlez with comment by Peter Farruggio
New York Times


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