Why (not) international education?

A. Chaedar Alwasilah ,  Contributor ,  Bandung   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 11:05 AM  |  Supplement

Beginning 2009, the government is committed to spending 20 percent of the total state budget on education. The increase of the budget is expected to accelerate education programs and improve their quality. According to Law No 20/2003 on national education, regional governments, namely those at regency and city levels, have to establish schools of international standard.

The law has been responded to differently by government officials, schools and parents. The thorny question of what is meant by “international school” remains. As long as no government regulation is made to put the law into operation, there will be multiple and often conflicting interpretations, both conceptually and operationally.

There are at least three common interpretations. For some, international school means simply employing a foreign teacher or principal regardless of his or her academic background. This is based on the erroneous assumption that an expatriate is a MacGyver who has a smart brain to come up with a solution when under pressure.

For some, international school means using English as a medium of instruction. Some teachers — be they Indonesian or foreigners — use English bilingually with a varying degree of fluency.

Bilingual programs are then perceived as an indicator of quality education; hence fluency in English becomes a priority over everything else. Many schools at subdistrict or village levels have jumped on the bandwagon, promoting theirs as international schools as soon as they have a bilingual class.

Still for some, international school means fulfilling a set of criteria that are recognized internationally. Thus, the employment of expatriates is not mandatory, as the most important thing is institutional benchmarking. In big cities there are already such quality schools that have been in operation from long before the law was made.

In a democratic society everyone has a right to the best education possible. Many Indonesian parents send their children overseas for quality education, spending a lot of money that would be otherwise foreign exchange. Seen from this economic perspective, by sending children to international schools at home much of our foreign exchange is secured.

The establishment of quality international schools as mandated by the law is indeed a way out. Such establishment has been responded to positively by parents who are reluctant to send their children overseas for cultural reasons. They are worried that Western education will spoil their culture and especially religion. Evidently in big cities many branded international schools have been established by Muslim schools and foundations. Many educators worry that international schooling in the long run will ruin the national system of education, aimed to preserve the indigenous and cultural values long and deep-rooted in the soil of Indonesia. Too much dependence on English will result in negative effects as follows: (1) students will unlearn the national language(s) already acquired, and (2) students will develop the attitude that Indonesian is not a language of mathematics, science and technology.

The negative effect of Western education has been obvious among university professors. In my observation, many Indonesian lecturers with Western educational backgrounds are reluctant to publish in Indonesian and prefer to write in English and use English textbooks. They are responsible for instilling in college students that Indonesian is not appropriate for developing science and technology. In other words, Indonesian has been disempowered by intellectuals on campuses. The international school campaign will even worsen the situation.

The bottom line is that international schooling should not uproot nationalism. Korea, Japan and China — to mention just a few — have set good examples. They are proud of their national language as a language of science and technology. They are committed to educating their citizens through publications in the national language. The lesson learned is that we should develop quality education without marginalizing the national language. Fluency in English is a byproduct, not the end.

In the final analysis, the key word of discourse is not “international school” but “quality school.” What makes a school international is its quality, not the other way around. There are three prerequisites of quality schooling: academic rigor, high expectations and expert teachers.

Academic rigor suggests deliberate efforts to create environments conducive to teaching and learning. Schools utilize rich resources to facilitate creativity. The school management always asks, “What’s best for students?” and “What does research say?” High expectations imply that everybody desires the highest achievements possible. Students are provided with the opportunity to become the best that they can be.

Expert teachers are those who master the content knowledge, develop the lesson plan and manipulate the classroom management. Lesson planning is based on three principles: independent and collaborative, goal-oriented, and relevant learning. They develop rapport with students by building strong bonds and knowing individual students. The end result is a powerful learning environment that is focused on student learning.

The writer can be reached at: chaedar_alwasilah@upi.edu.

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