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Teach Our Children Well: A Look At Our Public Elementary Schools in Pohnpei

By Jasmine Johnson

April 2000 (MC #26) Education

Introduction

Education in the Federated States of Micronesia has been a point of major interest and debate over the past few decades. It is generally known that education in the FSM is one of poor quality. The reasons for this have been a topic of controversy. Indeed, numerous studies have been conducted over the past 10 to 15 years concerning this very subject. While these studies have proved valuable and insightful, many of them have depended on presuppositions that can be misleading. Low teacher accreditation, poor textbooks, and high student-teacher ratios, for example, are often used to explain why schools do not perform well. While the impact of these elements cannot be denied, the measure of their influence on education is small enough to consider them non-factors.

Interested in approaching education from a different perspective, Micronesian Seminar conducted a two-month study on 12 Pohnpeian public elementary schools--which comprise a third of the public elementary schools on island. The purpose of the study was to discern what made a good school good and a bad school bad in order to determine in what areas the schools need improvement. Although the study does not follow the rigorous norms of technical reporting, it hopes to provide a grass roots view of different schools and judgements on what makes them work or not, and so, be helpful in other areas.

Schools were deliberately picked according to reputations, which were either confirmed or negated by observation of each school and by their respective passing rates over the past twelve years in the high school entrance exam (see table at the end of this article). Good schools were schools that had a good reputation and a high passing rate in the entrance exam. Each school took approximately two to three days to observe. The conditions of the schools were recorded and photographed, teachers and principals were interviewed, students were observed, and statistics of each school were studied. These and other characteristics were chosen for examination under four headings: the school, the staff, the students, and the community.

There were some interesting surprises during the course of the study. Some schools, despite their poor reputations and low passing rates, were found to have significantly improved in management. Some schools of higher reputation had fallen behind their usual standards, while others were found to be so handicapped that any real progress seems impossible without major changes.

Non-factors

Textbooks

Worn and out-of-date textbooks are sometimes blamed for poor performance of elementary schools; yet, textbooks do not correlate with student success or failure in the high school entrance exam. Throughout Pohnpei the quality of textbooks is generally poor. Ohmine Elementary School, one of the largest schools on island, has had to split all of its grades into four or five sections. In some grades, a single textbook has to be shared by four teachers and approximately 100 students. Yet, the school shows good passing rates. In fact, many schools with good reputations are using textbooks that teachers remember using some 10 or 15 years ago when they themselves were students. Some schools even use textbooks that do not correspond to grade levels. At Nett Elementary School, the books are approximately 20 years old. Yet the overall percentage of students who passed the high school entrance exam from 1987 to 1999 is 43%, one of the highest passing rates in Pohnpei. Another school using the same type of textbooks, however, shows a 29% passing rate, one of the lowest passing rates in Pohnpei.

Scarce and poor quality textbooks present a challenge that requires ingenuity. Good schools are often schools that are able to provide a solution to problems such as these. One teacher at Nett said she cannot rely on some of the textbooks, so she spends her weekends finding other materials to use. An Ohmine teacher has to photocopy reams of paper every week to be able to provide students with lessons from the textbook. On the other hand, teachers at schools with low passing rates do not ordinarily do any work outside of class. Such teachers complain about the lack of materials but never take the time to find solutions to the problem.

Student-Teacher Ratios

Student-teacher ratios, aside from textbooks, are another element that can be misleading. Many teachers and principals blame high student-teacher ratios for low passing rates in the high school entrance exam. All twelve schools studied on Pohnpei, regardless of their quality or rank, have ratios that fall around 30 students per teacher. For example, one school with a very poor reputation has a student teacher ratio of 30:1. Nett Elementary School, on the other hand, has a student teacher ratio of 35:1, and its reputation is one of the best on island. Another school has a more ideal student-teacher ratio of 20:1, but its passing rate is the lowest among the twelve schools studied. The reasons for student failure in the entrance exam, then, must lie in other areas.

Accreditation

Because it is believed that accredited teachers increase students' chances of passing the high school entrance exam, many people are of the opinion that Pohnpei's elementary education problem is unaccredited teachers. Of the twelve schools studied on Pohnpei, a small fraction of perhaps five percent are unaccredited. Some really low performing schools have all their staff members accredited, while other high performing schools have some teachers not yet accredited. Teacher accreditation, as a result, does not seem to correlate with school performance.

The School

Physical Conditions of the School

In a secluded village there is a school that is in need of some extreme remodeling. A tree branch, broken off by a typhoon, smashed into a two classroom building rendering one of the rooms useless. Only one class uses the building and, as a result, it is not well taken care of. Obscenities are written on the walls, windows have been torn open, and an inch of mud covers the floor. Betelnut spit adds red stains to the floor. Some windows have been boarded up to keep people from breaking into the classroom. In another building, one classroom is so dimly lit that students must crouch over their notes to read and write. This room is so crowded that a person has to climb over chairs and desks to get to the front of the class. The outhouses, some 25 feet away from the school buildings, have obscene graffiti on the walls. The walls, seats, and floors are wet with urine. Just in front of the outhouses is the garbage area. Appalling litter, ranging from paper to spoiling food, covers the grass, attracting flies.

At Nett Elementary School, the schoolyard is a spacious area that is well-groomed and litter-free. There is no graffiti on the buildings. There is some minor damage, such as leaking roofs and broken windows, but there has been considerable effort to keep these areas neat-looking and taken care of. Wherever there is a window that has been pulled open, the open fringes are trimmed off neatly to prevent children from getting hurt. Some windows are boarded up completely to prevent people from breaking in. In a first grade classroom, students are taught to say "Kaselehlie!" as soon as someone enters the room. The classrooms are clean and tidy because the teachers employ rules that make a big difference, such as the rule stipulating that all footwear must be kept outside. Students always keep their chairs organized and are not allowed to move them around. Not only are visuals new and relevant to the school lessons, but they also point out correct behavior in class.

The first school has a poor reputation matched by a 29% passing rate in the entrance exam. It is typical of schools with poor reputations and very low passing rates to have conditions that match the preceding description. Classrooms are not well cared for and show no organization. They have unswept floors with crumpled pieces of paper littering certain areas. Chairs are clumped together where friends wish to sit by each other, and these students often whisper and converse during class. Some students sit alone and have free reign to stare out the window. Blackboards are so damaged and so old that the eyes are strained when one tries to recognize anything written on them.

By contrast, Nett, a school with a fine reputation, has made efforts to keep the school looking its best. This is typical of good schools. At Seinwar Elementary School, another school with a fine reputation and a high passing rate, trees have been planted around the well-groomed and litter-free schoolyard to provide shade for the children and to create an aesthetic atmosphere. Nanpei Memorial School is fortunate enough to have parents voluntarily clean the schoolyard nearly every other weekend. The baseball field is always groomed and the basketball court has been undergoing renovations. Lights have even been added to the basketball court to permit evening games. Throughout the 12 schools in this study, a pattern was observed: the better the school, the better the school's physical conditions.

Class management

An 8th grade class at Nett Elementary School has 43 students. Students squint upon entering the room because low wattage electric bulbs dimly light it. Some electric sockets don't work and windows are boarded up to keep the rain and thieves out. The lack of textbooks forces the teacher to spend time writing notes and class work on the board. He is, however, well prepared for this. He allots a period of time to clearly explain what he has just written. His explanations are clear, concise and easy to understand. Time is no barrier, for his students still have plenty of time left to do classwork. Meanwhile, the teacher walks around the classroom, helping individual students. At a table positioned in the back of the room sits a special education student. While the teacher checks on his other students, he always comes back to this particular student and helps him out.

For this 8th grade teacher, discipline is key. The teacher does not tolerate talking during his lecture and demands everyone's attention. He is very strict on students who aren't paying attention. He understands the lesson he is teaching completely. Rather than stopping to consult his notes, he writes notes and provides examples on the board. He can answer any question given him without hesitation. It is obvious he has planned out how long he needs to talk, what he needs to say, how much time students may ask questions, and how long students will require to finish their class work. Not only is he able to touch the minds of his students, he is able to keep their attention because he is articulate and enthusiastic about his class. His ingenuity in dealing with the problems of the classroom and in handling his students makes his class typical of a school with a good reputation.

Observation of other schools confirms the impression that schools with good passing rates show good class management. Seinwar, for example, has teachers that take preparation very seriously. Whenever drills are given or questions are asked of a student who does not know the answer, the teacher refuses to leave the child. Rather, he sticks with him or her until the correct answer is given. At Ohmine, one teacher goes so far as to divide the class into four different sections: the far advanced, the advanced, the average, and the below average. Her room itself is divided into sections. She has designated one table to be the library area, where children can read if they are done with their work early, and another section to be a study area, where they will find reference books to help with their work.

Schools with poor reputations, on the other hand, present a completely different picture of classroom management. In one such school, a teacher tries to teach the hour's lesson, but never gets beyond the halfway mark of the first page of his lesson because he has to stop many times to prevent arguments from breaking out among his students and to scold students who are conversing in his class. In another school, a teacher who was not expecting to be observed was found sleeping on the floor as students ran around exchanging coloring crayons and playing pattycake games. It took him a few minutes to collect himself before giving them some work to do, but the students were so undisciplined that they kept on talking, walking around, and ignoring him. On the whole, schools in which a majority of the classes exhibit poor class management skills are schools with low passing rates.

The Staff

The Principal

Maria Yamada, principal of Nett Elementary School, has the ability to make a person feel at ease. She carries herself with dignity, strength, and confidence--qualities that would be hard to miss if it wasn't for her humility. She sees her staff as her friends rather than colleagues and treats them accordingly. They speak to her as one would speak to an older sister. Indeed, they are so at ease with her that they spend more time at her desk, even in her chair, than she herself. In her conversations with the staff, she tries very hard to encourage the teachers to perceive each other as trustworthy people. She demands the best of her staff and of herself, often checking their lesson plans to make sure that their work is being done--a practice not common in all schools.

It is not surprising that this principal's school has a passing rate of 43%. The reaction to her methods of interacting with the school's staff is typical of good schools around Pohnpei. In such schools, the principal works well with the staff to get results. Productive principals, in one way or another, maintain the respect of staffs, demand work of themselves and staffs, are innovative enough to solve problems, and possess a strong dedication to the school. Eugenio Ardos is principal of Seinwar Elementary School, which shows an exemplary record. Although not considered a friend by most of the staff members, he is deeply revered and respected. Danio Poll of Ohmine makes sure that progress reports and lesson plans are made with regularity. Sebastian Amor of Awak only allows his teachers six absences per year. The demands these people make on themselves and their staffs have propelled their schools to the forefront of Pohnpei elementary schools.

The principal of one low performance school is deeply disliked. One teacher commented, "He is bad. B-A-D." Teachers accuse the principal of stealing from the community and from the school, of making promises that he never keeps, and of being very undemocratic in his decisions concerning the school. During PTA meetings, if he is confronted by frank questions about the school, he becomes upset. Staff meetings are much the same thing. He only calls the staff together if he wishes to reprimand them. So whenever the staff needs help, they turn to each other. Although there are strong feelings of loyalty among the teachers, there is none at all for the principal.

Unfortunately for the school described above, their principal cares very little for the school. His policies fluctuate, depending on the mood he is in. Often playing favorites, he incites resentment among the teachers, who in the end point accusing fingers at him.

Generally speaking, schools with poor reputations have principals who show little interest in their schools. Teachers at one school, for example, feel their scope of experience would be increased if they were allowed to rotate grades--that is, teach different grades each year. But the principal ignores their requests and places them permanently in grades that many feel they are not qualified for. One teacher who has been trained to teach 1st to 3rd grade is now instructing the 8th graders. Principals have a tremendous influence on schools. Whenever a principal is unable to be an effective leader, the school’s passing rates on the entrance exam show it.

Staff Motivation

At one low performance school, the sense of connection and group effort found at Awak Elementary School, a school that is earning a good reputation, is not present. At Awak, the teachers hang around at the end of the school day and get work done. Here, as soon as the bell signaling the end of class rings, teachers head home. There isn't much communication about the school between teachers. They gossip about other things, but rarely discuss the school itself. At Awak, on the other hand, teachers are always walking in and out of the office, photocopying papers and using the computers. At the low performance school, communication with each other is very hard to establish. The principal is unable to get the cooperation of the teachers. One of the teachers, for example, has a big absenteeism problem but the principal does not confront him. Another teacher and the principal do not get along and have had arguments that at one point resulted in the teacher declaring his resignation and marching away from the school.

In schools where the staff work well together, teachers are supportive of each other and enthusiastic about their jobs. These are generally schools with very good reputations. One teacher at Awak gives out classwork and walks around to check students' answers, often gently rebuking a student for being lazy and getting a problem wrong. Once a student finishes all the answers correctly, the teacher asks him to help correct the other students' problems. The young boy's classmates call on him often, preferring his help to that of the teacher's. Another teacher has to take on two classes because a teacher is absent. She spends five to ten minutes in one class giving out drills and teaching children to write the alphabet. Then she rushes back to the other class and gives them the same lesson.

Because Awak refuses to dismiss their students or leave them unsupervised when a teacher is absent, it uses a system in which teachers have a partner the whole year round. Thus, whenever a teacher is absent, his or her partner immediately steps in without delay. The teachers at Awak thrive on a policy of cooperation. They are meticulous about helping each other and strive to be reliable. Yet, they understand that lending a helping hand is no small feat and, as a result, they only ask for help when it is truly needed. When such cooperation is present in a school, student performance is often enhanced.

By contrast, teachers at the low performance school lack the motivation to work together. Arguments that break out between teachers and the principal have even escalated into fist fights. Each teacher seems to watch out for himself. The smallest of favors are reluctantly given, and then only after a fair amount of negotiation. At another school with low passing rates, teachers also find it difficult to work together. When a teacher is absent, no one takes over his or her class. The class is left on its own from morning till lunch, after which it is dismissed for the day. Every once in a while, either the principal or a teacher checks on the class, usually to tell them to keep the noise down. Absenteeism does not result in the teachers helping each other out. Instead, classes are left unsupervised or are dismissed earlier than usual.

Interestingly, schools have a great advantage when a common connection is found among the staff. At Nanpei Memorial School, the staff members are all related to each other. The motivation to keep Nanpei's reputation well-respected reaches deep into the family's honor, for should the school ever be tainted by failure, then their name will be shamed. Another good school, Nett's staff members have all grown up with each other either in the same Catholic elementary school or the same Catholic high school. As a result, their cohesiveness stems from the same mores and codes taught to them when they were children. When staff members are able to establish a sense of connection to each other, they tend to cooperate with each other.

Students

Student Behavior

The students of the better schools seem more interested in learning than students from weaker schools. In each class observed, almost every single student is prepared. Notebooks are open, pencils are poised, and eager hands are always raised when a question is asked. Students who do not have textbooks already have a copy of the notes – either handwritten or photocopied. They are also unhesitating when they need to ask a question. Their eagerness to learn and their active participation during class suggests that they are interested enough in their lessons to try to do well. In fact, Seinwar’s track record on the entrance exam shows a 70% success rate in the past twelve years.

The students of high reputation schools also take great pride in their school. According to Thomas Ardos, a teacher at this school, the students are responsible for creating school rules, such as the rule that stipulates that graffiti of any kind is completely forbidden on the buildings. In fact, there is no graffiti anywhere on the campus. Even the outhouse has none of the graffiti one would expect.

Student behavior, school spirit, and success in the entrance exam point to the fact that the students have a strong motivation to study. While there could be many reasons for this, one of the main conclusions to be drawn is that students are eager to learn because they study in an environment that encourages and promotes learning. Not only do their teachers encourage them to learn well and study hard, but the students also keep each other in line.

In contrast, the students of one school with a poor reputation show very little interest in the school. Student behavior in class is often disruptive and inattentive. In one classroom, the teacher’s voice competes with students who are conversing in the front of the room. Arguments between students break out often and the teacher stops his lesson periodically to bring them under control. Desks and chairs in such classrooms are often disorganized or clustered together according to the cliques that the students have formed, making the probability of talking during a lesson even higher. When a question is asked, students prefer calling out the answer to raising their hand. Indeed, this school has very few students who raise their hands or show any other form of respect towards the instructor. Most students walk out if they need to spit, others just disappear for a few minutes. One presumes they went to use the restroom. Few students have a textbook open to the page the teacher is teaching his or her lesson from. Even fewer students bother to take notes. Some students come with no notebook or pencil at all.

Lack of good behavior and interest in learning usually lead to poor results in school. Indeed, the school just described has a passing rate of 22% over the past twelve years. Such lack of motivation seems to be caused by the atmosphere of the school. Students feel no pride for the school and have very little interest in learning. As a result, they do not try in their lessons and do not respect the school. They are usually undisciplined in their study habits and disrespectful of their teachers. While some teachers struggle to hold the attention of the students, others just wish to get the lesson over with.

The observation of the twelve schools revealed that students generally follow one of two patterns of behavior. Students at schools with good reputations are disciplined in class, eager to learn, proud of their school, and well motivated. A good portion of the students at weaker schools, on the other hand, are undisciplined in class, uninterested in their lessons, unmotivated, and disrespectful of school staff and property. Such undisciplinary behavior is a direct result of unstructured and uninteresting classes. One of the reasons for such a distinction between good and bad schools could be that at good schools teachers and parents are both eager to establish strong links of communication.

Community Support

Most schools enjoy a certain degree of community support on Pohnpei. Some have very high community support and others very low. The three most common and minimal forms of community support are schoolyard grooming, money donations, and attendance at PTA meetings and other school functions. Most parents show their support for the school by grooming the schoolyard once every quarter, leaving staff and students to maintain school grounds at other times. Generally speaking, PTA meetings have very low attendance. Most of those who do attend are women. Such low attendance is attributed to poor communication between the school and community and lack of interest by the community itself. High community support, on the other hand, is unusual but unmistakable. This type of community support is indicated by strong staff relations and good communication, and often it results in high success rates on the high school entrance exam.

Seinwar Elementary School is one of the few fortunate schools on Pohnpei that can boast that it has its community’s support. Parents are so involved at this school that they feel it necessary to enforce school rules at home everyday. For example, the school has created a rule for walking safely on the main road. Parents employ these rules wherever they go to set an example for their children. The school has also made it mandatory that parents allow their children to finish all homework before performing any chores. Parents are often invited to the school to observe classes and many of them do so during their free time. PTA meetings show a strong force of interested parents in attendance and many more are involved during student functions at the local church. They bring contributions of food, money and gifts to show their support of their children’s efforts.

Communities that are interested in their schools volunteer more than just time to clean the school grounds. The Seinwar community, for example, feels they have a strong voice. Parents come willingly to the PTA meetings to discuss the affairs of the school. They have even written a letter to the Education Department requesting that teachers for Seinwar School must first meet the parents’ own requirements.

Parents are more responsive to a school that produces good results. When parents know that their students are learning and trying hard in class, they readily support school activities and functions and become more involved in their children’s education. For example, Seinwar Elementary School has maintained a long tradition of good academic results in the high school entrance exam. Thus, parents who transfer their children to Seinwar do so with the hopes that their children will have a better chance at entering high school. Maria Yamada of Nett Elementary School demands the best of her staff. The teachers, in turn, are eager to reach her standards. As a result, the school has shown a steadily high passing rate for the high school entrance exam for over a decade. The community approves of such efforts and willingly supports Maria and her staff.

In order to gain community support, schools must initiate communication with the community. Awak Elementary School has managed to increase the number of parents attending PTA meetings and other school functions by passing out letters to be delivered to the parents. Once a strong system of communication is established, parents feel that they are an important part of the school process and are thus able to contribute. By contrast, one school with a poor reputation cannot get its community interested in the school because efforts to spark community interest are half-hearted. Communication between the two parties is uncommon and usually by word of mouth. Parents hardly hear from the school and, as a result, hardly show interest in the school.

Another reason for parents being uninterested in school is that many parents are unaware of their roles in the school. Many parents feel that their schools could use improvement and most of them wonder why the school has not made any effort to fix problems. These parents are under the false impression that improvement of the school is the responsibility of the school and the Education Department alone. The Education Department has been trying to abolish such misconceptions by generating programs that will clarify the roles of parents in the school.

At one poor school the community does little to support the school. Indeed, attendance at PTA meetings is very sparse because community members feel they do not have a strong voice in school affairs. At most schools, the community is responsible for keeping the school grounds clean at least once a semester, but at this school, teachers and students hold this responsibility. The school’s passing rates over the past twelve years have been very poor and the community is simply responding to this. They view the school as ineffective and of poor quality. Because they cannot effect any favorable changes in the school, they feel that getting involved in the school is a waste of time and effort.

The community is not interested in this school because it shows virtually no interest in itself. The school, for example, makes no efforts to improve its passing rates, even though it has one of the lowest ones on Pohnpei. Parents who are discouraged that their children are not receiving a quality education have transferred their children to schools that are much further away. Teachers, discouraged by the lack of community support, are further disappointed when their principal ignores their needs and the students’ needs. Teachers feel that outside help from programs provided by the Peace Corps and by the Talent Search Program would increase their students’ chances of passing the entrance exam, but their requests are ignored. When the community is aware of such problems and sees that not only are they unable to help but that the school itself cannot seem to help itself, they lose interest in the school.

Conclusion

While we cannot give you a definite formula for a good school–there is none–we can show you what makes a school work well. Wherever there is strong collaboration among schools, principals, and communities, a good school can be found–one that enjoys a good reputation and has high passing rates in the entrance exam.

The principal is pivotal in creating strong bonds among his staff, the school and the community. A strong principal is equivalent to a strong school. It is the principal who is capable of making a mediocre staff and of enlisting community support for the school. He is the jumper cable that infuses a dormant engine with power.

The staff, the principal, and the community mutually affect one another. The motivation of one group depends on and is fueled by the motivation of the other two groups. Their collaboration, as a result, is essential to creating a good school. When one group does not participate in school affairs, the other two are less effective and the school’s performance is impeded. On the other hand, when support is given and received by all parties, the school’s performance is often high. When the community is concerned about the education of their children, they ensure that their children are learning, often consulting with teachers and principals and questioning the curriculum and the needs of their children. They support the school and try to make it the best learning environment for their children. Teachers, in return, see the concern and efforts of the parents. Encouraged by the principal, they reach for higher educational standards and try many methods to teach the students well.

Micronesian education needs attention, as we have been told time and again. Public elementary schools on Pohnpei generally are in poor condition. But good schools do exist, and their success deserves to be highlighted. While many schools are doing poorly, there are others that have improved a great deal. These improved schools have learned from good schools. By putting the spotlight on their success, we hope that other schools can finally see what works and follow suit.



Passing Rates of High School Entrance Exam, 1987-1999

Rank School Students Passed % Passed
1 Seinwar 283 198 70%
2 Rohnkiti 212 138 65%
3 Mwoakilloa 122 67 55%
4 Ohmine 1173 617 53%
5 Net 772 332 43%
6 Sokehs Powe 533 221 41%
7 Kolonia 1076 436 41%
8 Awak 323 119 37%
9 Mand 159 58 36%
10 Pehleng 223 77 35%
11 Sapwuahfik 189 64 34%
12 Parem 108 36 33%
13 Pingelap 286 93 33%
14 Saladak 390 115 29%
15 ESDM 167 48 29%
16 Nukuoro 151 42 28%
17 Iohl 30 8 27%
18 Lukop 218 56 26%
19 Salapwuk 43 11 26%
20 Palikir 309 78 25%
21 Sapwerek 175 40 23%
22 Wene 306 69 23%
23 Enipein 214 48 22%
24 Temwen 155 34 22%
25 Rohi 105 21 20%
26 Lewetik 58 11 19%
27 Sokehs Pah (RSP) 183 34 19%
28 Sekere 332 61 18%
29 Wapar 160 27 17%
30 Sapwalap 324 44 14%
31 Kapingamarangi 245 30 12%

Source: Pohnpei State Department of Education
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