Striving for reforms on a proven path

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CRADLE TO CAREER: Our education reforms will be based on the Strive initiatives that have worked for US

Datuk Dr Zakri Abdul HamidIT has been said many times that a better education system is fundamental to Malaysia's drive to become a developed country. The question is, what specific steps are needed to improve the system on which so much depends?

That's why, in New York recently, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak offered his strong support to efforts now under way to reform our education system based on tactics pioneered in the United States -- a proven strategy successfully raising student success throughout the school system in many jurisdictions, starting from very early childhood through completion of university or college.

The "cradle to career" approach of the Strive initiative, originated in Ohio by Dr Nancy Zimpher, now chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), involves, among many measures, identifying specific interventions such as daycare or home visits by social service workers that best prepare a child to start kindergarten on the right foot ("Success by Six").

The students are then helped to meet carefully tracked indicators of critical progress in, for example, math and reading proficiency along their educational journey.

Experience with Strive shows a given approach is not necessarily best in all circumstances; pilot studies would be required in Malaysia.

But, armed with these important insights, community talent, time and resources would be narrowly concentrated on tactics that produce proven, winning results.

Positive results are being documented in many education systems where the Strive approach is being deployed, which now includes 27 US states and the District of Columbia.

For example, since Strive began in Cincinnati, Ohio, four years ago, that city has experienced a sharp nine per cent increase in kindergarten readiness, setting the stage for later success. The use of certified teachers, small class sizes and summer learning enrichment programmes, are part of the early education strategy chosen there.

Cincinnati public school student math proficiency in Grade 4 is up seven per cent, Grade 8 math up 15 per cent and college enrolment has jumped 10 per cent.

At the end of high school, one-on-one advice and simply helping students complete financial aid forms and scholarship applications, led to a profound 40 per cent increase in college enrolment by graduates from one low-performing Cincinnati school compared to the year before.

Such impressive results are achieved through community-wide efforts.

An essential Strive pre-requisite, says Zimpher: Strategic buy-in from hundreds of partners throughout the community -- city government officials, school district superintendents, presidents of universities and community colleges, corporate leaders, philanthropists, and the executive directors of hundreds of education-related non-profit and advocacy groups.

With the prime minister looking on, SUNY and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) sealed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with our Higher Education Ministry.

Malaysia is the first country looking to institute at a nationwide level the Strive methodology.

Zimpher is a member of Malaysia’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) and chair of the NYAS, which hosted the meeting with the prime minister and other senior Malaysian leaders.

The year-old GSIAC  today comprises international experts in education, economics, business, science and technology, each volunteering to help Malaysia achieve its Vision 2020 through knowledge and innovation.

“There is virtually no reliable or continuous collaboration between pre-kindergarten, kindergarten to Grade 12, higher education and workforce development,” says Zimpher, adding the need for coordination with other student supports such as after-school programmes.

“This is a recipe for failure. Kids may do well in preschool, for example, but unless that preschool is working with the local school district to align expectations, most of them won’t be ready for kindergarten.”

The same holds true for the transitions to high school, college and career. These absences of collaboration cause what we call ‘leaks in the education pipeline’, youths leaving the educational system before completion.

“The alignment of efforts involving all players throughout a community is a major enterprise but offers high rewards for students and educators alike,” says Zimpher.

“We are proud that Malaysia is the first country taking up this challenge at a national level and look forward to working with the country in making this programme succeed in an emerging economy context.”

Najib noted that the proposed reforms would help ensure every child enters school well prepared, eliminate disparities in academic success, and link the community and family supports available to students — all important steps in
the transformation of Malaysia’s economy with greater human capital in science, technology and innovation.

“This initiative will also address the lack of student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics due to poor teaching of the subject matter, insufficient professional support and supervision, a lack of priority given to the subjects by schools, a lack of information on career prospects in science-related fields and unattractive prospects for science-qualified graduates.”

The prime minister said he was struck by a comment Zimpher made on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur that the challenges she faces as SUNY chancellor are similar in kind and in scale to those faced in Malaysia.

“The notion that Malaysia and New York state would benefit by attacking many of the same problems in tandem, learning from each other’s experiences, and leveraging the investments of the best practices going on throughout the world, as conveyed by Chancellor Zimpher’s team in the sphere of education and the NYAS’s team in the sphere of science, technology, engineering and maths, is truly inspirational.”

Getting the many and diverse stakeholders in education aligned so that they move in a single agreed direction, with a focus on the pursuit of only those interventions that demonstrate success, is an organisational and leadership challenge of enormous proportions.

But the potential benefit for Malaysian society of maximising our human potential through a more coherent “cradle to career” educational system is comparably large, and makes it imperative that we strive to make it happen.

Malaysia is the first country looking to institute at a nationwide level the Strive methodology, which has raised student success beginning from early childhood to tertiary level in the United States.


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