Getting a taste of American public education

Joe Harrington

Fourteen international educators who are guest students at Kent State have come from countries as far away as Indonesia and Lebanon for the chance to research America’s unique education system. For most of them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The educators are at Kent State this semester through the International Research and Exchange program. IREX is a nationwide program that allows foreign educators an opportunity to observe American teachers and students in public schools.

The educators assigned to Kent State are all English teachers in their home countries. Most of the educators teach English as a second language, such as Nurhayati Baco of Indonesia. Others teach it as a primary language, such as Valsa Balaji of India, who teaches English at her school of 5,800 students.

Studying the way English is taught is just a small part of what the IREX project is trying to accomplish. The project’s main goals are school improvement and teacher development for the educator’s home school.

To fulfill all these goals, the 14 educators are each sent to surrounding Northeast Ohio public schools to observe English classes, teachers and students by shadowing the teachers throughout the school day.

To help the educators with their research, a faculty member in the College of Education, Health and Human Services is assigned to mentor them.

All the teachers have noticed major differences, not in the material being taught, but the methodology the teachers use and the students’ overall attitudes. Malar Rajaratnam of Malaysia said her students are “spoon fed” information in her country.

Ahmed Mekkaoui of Algeria said in his country the government designs the curriculum, which Mekkaoui says leads to every student doing the same exact project in every class throughout the country.

“Our students don’t show much interest because they don’t have the freedom (U.S.) students have,” Mekkaoui said.

Egyptian teachers Adel Henein and Yousef Mahmoud said their countries’ centralized education system set their students back. Henein said he believes the U.S. education system is simply better.

“In Egypt, the ministry (of education) controls everything,” Mahmoud said, “In America, teachers have more freedom and students are more responsible.”

The IREX participants cited technology and other resources such as libraries as one of the major differences that separates their country’s education system from America’s.

“Its amazing how well-equipped the facilities are,” Mahmoud said.

None of the IREX teachers enjoy the technology and libraries more than Abeer Barakat, of Iraq.

Barakat says her country’s constant state of chaos and war for more than 30 years has kept the education system from advancing.

Barakat teaches at an all-girl school in Baghdad, which, before 2003, had no satellite technology. Now, the lack of electricity in Baghdad is holding her students back and preventing them from using educational tools such as the Internet.

So far the guest students are enjoying their time living and learning in the United States.

“I heard about the culture shock and I had none,” said Latifa Brahimi, of Morocco. “American people are helpful and polite. The professors welcome us and appreciate our presence.”

Contact College of Education, Health and Human Services reporter Joe Harrington at [email protected].