Sunday, April 13, 2008

Helping kids in rural areas

My wife and I have been volunteering as Math tuition teachers for a few kids from a Vietnamese hill tribe who have recently migrated to the US as refugees. It has been a challenge as well as a blessing and our experience of teaching these kids led us to draw comparisons between them and some of the Orang Asli and Sarawak and Sabah Bumiputera and even Malay kids in rural Malaysia.

We teach 3 or 4 kids out of the 8 kids in the family and we focus primarily on Math. We teach them on a Tuesday evening and other volunteers teach them English, History and other subjects on the other days of the week (not including weekends). These kids are really sweet and innocent but they also come from a background where many things we take for granted are just not taught or not known.

For example, when we told them that we were from Malaysia, they didn't even know where Malaysia was. To them, we might as well have been from India or Africa since they couldn't place Malaysia on a map. (They also had not heard of Siem Reap in neighboring Cambodia) I won't be too surprised if many orang Asli kids in Peninsular Malaysia or Iban kids in Sarawak or Kadazan kids in Sabah in the interior areas do not know where Vietnam was either.

They also had a very limited understand of what money was which made it difficult for me to teach one of the kids - a 12 year old - about money. He had some difficultly in answering me when I asked him how much would he have left if I gave him a 20 dollar bill and asked him to give me two 5 dollar bills in return.

Also absent was any understanding of what geometry and geometric shapes are which makes it difficult to explain concepts such as the difference between area and perimeter.

They have made vast improvements since coming to the US probably because they have had volunteer tuition teachers come to them almost every day of the week for the past year or so. They receive very little personal attention from their own class teachers because of the large class sizes in their school. And yet, I suspect that they are still some way behind their peers.

This experience made me think the following - If these kids, with the help of volunteers who come to them everyday of the week, have trouble keeping up with their peers, how much more challenging is it for the Orang Asli and Malay kids in the rural areas to keep up with their urban peers? I think many of them would have the same kinds of problems of context which these Vietnamese refugees face. Many things which urban kids take for granted, such as the concept of money, geography, travel, newspapers, etc... are more or less absent in the rural areas in Malaysia. It is not that surprising, given this context, that some schools in Sabah have a 100% fail rate when it comes to UPSR or PMR exams!

My heart really goes out to these kids in the rural areas since very little is down to help them with their educational deficiencies. I know of some social organizations and programs which are organized by people in urban areas to travel to some of these more rural areas to help the people out but these efforts are mostly restricted to development projects or activities. It is much more difficult to sustain an effort which ships in volunteers to give tuition to these kids on a weekly much less daily basis.

One way to rectify this shortcoming is to send in more teachers to teach in these rural areas. I remember hearing about the MOE giving more hardship and transportation allowances to teachers who have to travel long distances to teach in rural schools in Sabah and Sarawak. Perhaps these sorts of efforts can be increased. Also, a similar program to the one in the US called Teach for America, where recent college graduates commit themselves to teach in an under resourced urban or rural school for 2 years can be introduced. This can be done with subsidies from the government as well as strategic partnerships with local companies. I think as Malaysians become richer and more educated, the willingness to serve in these volunteer and semi-volunteer capacities will also increase. The challenge here is to create the infrastructure for these volunteers to serve.

Another possibility is to give financial incentives to parents of many of these kids from disadvantages families which are contingent on these kids staying in school. Such a program, called Opportunidades, has been implemented in Mexico for the past decade or so and is in the process of being copied in certain urban and economically deprived areas in the US.

I really think that education is the most important means by which these kids in rural areas can escape from a cycle of poverty and want. Government policy is one way of helping these kids out. Another is through the efforts of dedicated and motivated young people. We all can do our own little part.

P.S. I'm well aware that many urban kids who come from less well to do families face similar challenges. I remember trying to give tuition to some kids from a Chinese Village just off Old Klang Road. Most of them preferred to play with the computer instead of sitting down and revising their Math problems. But these challenges are multiplied in the rural areas because of the lack of resources in their schools.


Shawn Tan said...

Some friends and I were just talking about something similar last week. We felt that the government needed to do something for poor or rural students. This can help level the playing field in education and give everyone equal opportunities.

But, as you have identified, teaching works both ways. You need someone who is willing to teach and someone who is willing to learn.

Getting the teachers to go teach in a rural area is ultimately a question of economics. If enough incentive is provided, or if it was enforced as part of teacher training, the first issue can be readily solved.

Solving the second issue is different. Ultimately, you need the parents to be proactively involved in encouraging the kids to learn. Maybe some tax breaks could be given to parents whose kids perform well in school. However, I do find the need for such incentives a little sad.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming, re tutoring, good for you!

Just a quick note to say that all rural kids are affected. As pointed out in a recent interview in Malaysiaini of a Selangor state exco member, dropout rates for kids from New Villages is very, very high --- 50% from Remove to Form 5 during my time for one of the Perak schools I know of. 50% is no joke. Numbers can also be inflated by 'automatic promotion' such that people make it to Form 5 without having basic literacy skills. (Translation to make it clear: they do not know how to read.) In many ways they are much worse off than people with equivalent abilities who had the choice to attend a Malay medium school. (In case you didn't know, in most New Villages, there is only ONE Chinese medium school.

Just for example, to be an electrician I am told that one now needs to pass a basic competency test. In principle this is great. In practice, many people who have the skills cannot pass the test because they are not literate in Malay (or at all). And so on. I am sure you have the same story in the estates Tamil medium schools.

And I have no doubt (as you said) that poor urban kids are affected as well. I suspect if someone took the time to dig out the drop out and SPM failure rates from the Kementrian, there will be many surprising statistics.

I guess my main beef with your post is that you (and most urbanites) assume that all Chinese are urban. This is blatantly not true. In Perak alone there are more than 100 New Villages. I know I have been harping on this point on the SMF list and elsewhere for a long time, but anyway, I hope we can reach a point where we talk about poverty as poverty and don't have to keep inserting racial assumptions into the picture. (Racial facts are OK if they help to solve the problem. Assumptions I don't like. I hope you don't think I am just being politically correct. Language does shape the way we think.)

Anonymous said...

These are dislocated kids both culturally and language wise, if you tutoring hill tribe kids whose parents came to America as refugees, from Laos and Cambodia, you will find the same problems, even worst. These kids lack discipline and basic learning skills. The question to ask then is, why so. Do they speak English at home? How can their parents help them?
It is easy to see why kids from an immigrant family ends up dislocated, where knowledge/work habits from past generation is not passed down due to how and what things are taught on top of a language barrier.
We have done this to a lot of kids in Malaysia through Malaysia's misguided education system. How does poor Chinese, Dayak, Kadazan parents suppose to help their kids when every thing is in Malay and they know very little Malay themselves. Even though a lot of the poorly schooled business man are quite good in arithmethic, the luaguage barrier prevents them fom helping their kids. I have seen many of these first hand. The same problem applies to us who are English educated too.
When I was in primary 6, only 1 student out of 70~80 students from my school passed the primary 6 entrance exam. It is a rural Chinese School.
Only a few of my Form 3 school mates (greater than 100) go beyond Form 5. However, most of my Form 6 classmates went to university.
I still see these classmate whenever I visit Malaysia. As Charis pointed out above, you will see the high drop out rate among the Chinese Schools. Please note, quite a number of rural Chinese schools have more than 50% non Chinese. Malays have no monopoly being poor. Let us have a policy that is race blind.

There are many problems facing Malaysia, unless we change at the policy level, I am not optimistic the system will fix itself.
Since DAP is governing Penang now, there is hope that DAP can do something better for all Malaysians -- show an example that works. We have to create competition in/to the system, a few suggestions here:
1. map out the human resource needs for Penang in 5,10,20... years in order to stay competitive
2. Share the vision
3. Nurture/hire talent based on ability important to the job irrespective of which stream they come from (whether it is Malay, English, Chinese or Tamail stream). In this way, we can tell all of them, at the end of the days, it is their skills that counts.
4. Allocate a percentage of state scholarships to students based on their entry into internationally ranked universities -- less subject to local manupulation.
5. Allocation a portion of the postgraduate student funding to attract Malaysians from top Universities back. The students who can get fellowships themselves are better students, why spend $500K on someone who may not graduate many years from now?
Even if you give $250K as sign on bonus, it is still a better deal for Malaysia.
6. Work on sources of state funding, make sure it stays in the state -- otherwise, the federal government can control you through funding. In US there is County, State and Federal funds, separate from each other.

This way, we can use an external system to bench mark our schools and reward those produce the results we need. Hopefully, the focus can then be on how to produce stdents of the qualities that are competitive.

We have to succeed inspite of the system!


p/s Charis, I think we are just 30 minutes' drive away from each other!

Anonymous said...

Context in learning and education is a very tough problem. In some ways, all of us suffer from it. I remember taking the SAT, AP exams remember how context was biased towards white Americans.

The best solution I have found is that if you catch them early i.e., in pre-school, you can solve a lot of the problems. So if there is real help needed for rural children its in pre-school and early primary education. Tackle the context problem early, and most problems can be taken care of themselves..

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4/13 !0:26:00
Language and culture are not context free (unless you consider a computer language). Can you explain to me how AP Calculus, Physic, Chemistry ... biased towards white Americans? I still have those past year problems left over from my kid's studies and the AP guide book from college board. If you can give me specific examples, I can check them out.


Unknown said...

Wow, that's great you're giving tuition to rural kids. I was part of my church program in tutoring rural kids. Yes, school syllabus is important, but I think bringing up these kids' interest in reading and learning counts for more.

All my best to both of you :) I would love to do it all again given the chance (and time!)


Dangerous Variable said...

Dad and Mom stays in Balik Pulau. They pastor an outreach church there. Balik Pulau is south western part of Penang and it considered the back waters of Penang.

Dad gives tuition to 2 girls who are in Form 6 because they do not have the money for outside tuition. It is a miracle they made it this far.

Mom teaches a kid with learning disabilities and low self-esteemed in the morning. She is in form 1. Then in the afternoon, she teaches 2 girls from another family who is poor. They only know ABC. Nothing else. Form 1 & 2.

There are a lot of young kids outside there who come from poor families. Do not have money for education. Most of them have to work after school to support family.

This is in our own back yard. There is a kid who lives a few doors away. Single widowed mother with a bright young son. My parents arranged that her son studies at a good school, Heng Ee Penang.

There are a lot of stories about kids who dropped out of school. Is our education failing them..? No, It is poverty. They just can't stay in school because their parents can't afford it.

These kids mentioned are all Chinese. What more the Malays near my area. Everyday, mom will talk to a group of Malay kids from the Kampung behind my house that plays in front of my gate because of the fascination of the dogs. They are poor and are in primary school. They have nothing to do after school and they do not have money for tuition classes. Mom and Dad has the thought of teaching them English but they have to find the time to do so.

Mom and Dad are ordinary people. Retirees. Just helping those in need. I am sure there are a lot more people who are like mom and dad out there, trying to make a minute difference hoping to change the lives of these children.

If you want to see the truth, contact me :)

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming and Tony, I say educate them to have less children while helping them with education and opportunities.

If they reproduce faster than their income increase, there is no way this country, or any country can keep up with the efforts needed to upkeep even their current living standards.

I know I sound very cold, but this is the best way to bring them forward. And after that, they can have as many kids as they want, as long as they understand the financial mechanics behind it all.

Anonymous said...


Why are there still vietnamese refugees? What are they taking refuge from?

- Ming

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Anonymous said...

Kian Ming, your problem got mainly 2.

1 - population growth in rural areas. You educate 1, you get 3 new babies. Cannot keep up.

2 - infrastructure. If student need walk 2 hours to school, and walk 2 hours back, plus resting time, u have 5 hours less each day for revision and homework.

You work on those first. Teachers, we can get and hire from Singapore.

Jarod said...

I believed you have not heard about why people are afraid to go to SABAH & SARAWAK, which also cause the states there lacking of teacher.

1. Mainly all the City men/women teacher does not want to go there due to insufficient facilities. No electricity , no IT access, no luxuries & etc (some of you had mentioned)which will not make them interested. (too pampered?)

2. There are a lot of rumour which all teacher who go there as a sane man/woman return insane. (Due to boredom? NOt sure. That is what i heard. No evidence so far.)

Personally, like Sabah. I wish i can teach there as well. Folks, Those who are young, go and teach. Sabah is a beautiful land. So do Sarawak i am sure. :)

PS: The MOE did give incentives to those who went to teach at Sabah & Sarawak. i think few hundred. Not sure. heard it from a teacher.

Anonymous said...


I believe all Peninsula teachers in Sabah and Sarawak get a free plane ticket home once every two years. I'm not sure if there is extra allowance.

If I'm not mistaken there is a 'rural allowance' for some areas (not all schools designated as 'luar bandar' and frankly this is a good thing). But someone needs to confirm this. Teachers' salaries are thus quite luxurious in rural areas especially with the lower cost of living.

Personally I can't imagine why anyone would want to live in a city. Pollution, congestion, no land to call your own, your grandfather didn't know your neighbour's grandfather and it's not like KL has decent bookshops, good public transport, or any museums or cultural events to speak of. :-P (Feel free to correct me of course. Seeing as I have been in KL a handful of times in my entire life, perhaps I'm not getting something, but really I don't see the attraction.)

Jarod said...

Hi Charis, i would agree on what you said about KL. I am from KL and thus wanting to get out of this place. Perak, sabah, sarawak are such a nice place. Do you know that you can get a BIG land in Sabah? :) Oops!

Btw, KL got attraction? I have lived here for ages and don't see anything that interest me!!!! How come people still want to come KL? Got gold ah? Flood got la........ I stayed on because i wana be around my parents . Else, i will be at SABAH!! Talk about KL, there are few things that i must admit it is good. We have IT hub,fashion hub, happening hotspot area like concert etc. So , in the end, KL still OK la.... boleh tahan!

How i wish that the education ministry can change the system, soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kian Ming,

I am not sure if use of computer might help the efficiency of the effort . Like video streaming to broadcast the teaching class.

If you need such specialty , I will be more than happy to help out on volunteer basis, on your hardware infrastructure. Drop by my blog for a comment, I can get in touch.


Anonymous said...

great! thanks very much for sharing

Anonymous said...

Proud of you, Ming.

Kor here.

Fikri said...

Suddenly, reading this post again, the thought hit me of how this could be an opportunity for some, if not all of us, to get something organised and do something in this regard e.g. teach urban poor/Orang Asli/rural children. This is an important issue that's worth a deeper look at, and perhaps there are some other things that can come out of this.

Being the film buff that I am, I am thinking that this would make an interesting subject for a documentary. Just a thought :)

Anonymous said...

Fikri, an excellent idea. :-) Often we Malaysians complain but then never do anything about anything. I'm a little too far away at the moment to give tuition to OA kids, but perhaps you don't have to think things up from scratch. You may be able to connect with existing organisations like to see if they have any existing things you could slot into. All the best.

Fikri said...

Ah, COAC. I know them well. In fact, I helped Colin Nicholas out on a video just before I left. That could well be an opening, but any hands on involvement from me will have to wait until I get back.

Nevertheless, I'll contact them and see what they have.