Cultivating Independent Thinkers


Why charter schools may just be the thing to break the mould of mediocrity in Malaysian schools.

I had a wonderful time teaching in two different charter high schools in the US: the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). Both are public residential schools. The first was opened in 1980, the other shortly thereafter.  Both continue to nurture and produce creative minds and incredible students.

The appeal of these institutions for me was the autonomy. Within broad guidelines of what students should know, we instructors were left to design our journeys there. Even to make changes and detours along the way. No state-ordained syllabus, no state-sanctioned-only texts or state-approved-only areas of inquiry. We didn’t teach with state tests in mind. NCSSM’s emphasis on inspiring students ‘to learn without fear’ is exactly what I’m talking about.

Yet ‘the students’ standardised tests scores are among the nation’s highest.’ They won gold medals in international competitions in mathematics, the sciences and arts. Things were just more liquid and were better for that.

Even our school days flowed differently. For instance, I taught a senior English course which met at different times on different days. The idea was to cater to the diversity of students: some who performed better in the early hours and others who did well later in the day. So every day in school was different with the added complexity of a six-school-day cycle (not counting weekends) being melded into a conventional seven-day week.

In Malaysia, a small number of ‘cluster schools’ have been set to engender institutions that can become ‘centres of excellence’. Their autonomy is circumscribed by the following, namely:

  • Education Act 1996;
  • National Education System;
  • Financial Procedure Act 1957, Treasury Circulars and Guidelines and Release Letters; and
  • Malaysian Education Quality Standards (SKPM)

However, some argue that the autonomy scheme ought ‘to be extended to schools with less than excellent achievements’. Jenny Gryzelius, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) writes, ‘By giving schools the possibility of setting up their own management boards to make decisions on school policy, differences between schools would emerge. Parents who are too poor to consider private education would be given a choice in what kind of education that they want for their children.’

The desire to have schools be autonomous is not misplaced nor without precedence. The maxim, ‘Hire good people and let them do what they do best’ applies to schools too. Micromanagement stifles and can suck good creative and student-centric teaching out of our schools.


Photos credits: Flickr users Mark HunterJennie.

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