30 Oct 2013

Language proposal for American Samoa teachers sparks hot debate

5:41 pm on 30 October 2013

A proposal that seeks to require teachers in American Samoa to be proficient in both Samoan and English, is the subject of hot debate in the territory.

Currently, English is the main language for instruction in classrooms, and Samoan can be used for clarification.

The Department of Education proposal aims to address decades of student underperformance, but not all are convinced the language barrier is to blame.

Leilani Momoisea reports:

The majority of teachers in American Samoa are Samoan, as are 95 % of the students. And almost all students entering Samoa Community College have not passed basic core subjects like English and Maths. The director of education, Vaitinasa Dr Salu Hunkin-Finau, believes students are failing because they don't understand the content. The director's special assistant, Dr Amy Blizzard, says the director feels that in lower grades, while young students are still coming to grips with English, teachers should be able to teach in Samoan.

"AMY BLIZZARD: By sixth grade or so, it would go to mostly English, and then by high school it would all be in English. But her belief is the English starting in Kindergarten is what hurts our students because they don't have exposure to it before they get to school, and thus they're trying to learn English, and learn in English at the same time."

But the Senator for Manu'a, Galea'i Tu'ufuli, says it's not the language that is failing the students, but the poor quality of teachers. Department of Education figures show that from 2007 to 2011 just 26% passed the reading test, and 38% the writing. And 41% of public school teachers have no teaching qualification. Senator Tu'ufuli says the performance of the children simply reflects the ability of teachers.

GALEA'I TU'UFULI: If you hire a teacher that doesn't have any teaching certificate you will get the same type of performance from our children. What you put in, you get it when they get out of school. So unless we hire qualified teachers, our children will have no opportunity to improve their performance, because of the lack of qualified teachers .

Amy Blizzard says the department is trying to revise the teacher education curriculum to bolster language and development skills of teachers. She says it's difficult to hire quality English-speaking teachers, and they are focussing on how to best prepare the teachers they do have.

AMY BLIZZARD: The problem has always been systemic here on hiring teachers. We can't get off-island teachers because the pay is so poor. So, again, they are trying to play to the strengths of the teaching pool that we can access.

Communities that don't speak Samoan are also questioning where this proposal leaves them. A Filipino teacher, Heidi Uele, says the Filipino community is wondering if this means their young children will have to be sent to expensive, private schools in order to be taught in English. She says this might also affect teaching jobs.

HEIDI UELE: For the current teachers that are now teaching in the elementary level that are Filipino, I'm thinking they might have to leave the elementary level and teach in the high schools if they're qualified to do that, or they might just have to move out of the public school system, and try to get a job teaching in the private schools where the medium of instruction is in English.

The department says it's looking at ways that would allow non-Samoan speaking students to learn in public schools, should the proposal be approved. It's expected to hold a number of parent, teacher and community meetings to discuss the proposal. If it's to be successful, the fono will have to pass an amended language of instruction law.