Education in American Samoa


At the time this article was written, David Gillmore was the Director of Professional Training Services for the NAEB.

While you read this article, please keep in mind that it was written in 1977 and the subject begins ten years earlier.  Much transpired in those ten years and much more has transpired since.  It is the hope of the publishers of this site that we receive input from many more people to help us fill in the blanks.



 
David Gillmore

Education in American Samoa - The Way It Was; The Way It Is

Ten years ago (1967), David Gillmore was part of a large contingent of American educational broadcasters who went to American Samoa to establish a school system using the latest techniques in instructional telecommunications and a specially-designed curriculum.  Now, returning as a tourist and observer, he reports on what has happened since.

It's 4:45 AM as the Pan Am jet settles smoothly onto the runway at Pago Pago. In the ten years since you first came to Samoa, the flight schedule hasn't changed-the only possible arrival time is the middle of the night.  Out of the plane now, you mix with other passengers straggling toward the terminal in various states of drowsiness. The big 747 looks strange on the tarmac, accented by the floodlights against the purple night, hovering over the low terminal buildings like a giant white bird of prey.
 
You are reassured by the warm, damp, slightly mildewy feel of the air about you as the customs officials routinely process your papers. You hear the murmur of soft Polynesian accents, and the smell of coconut oil hangs about the parcels that have come off the plane.
 
Yes, this is Samoa, all right. You're back. And you wonder what has become of that school system. It's starting to get light as you drive from the airport into town. The villages are awake. Adults are beginning to emerge from the concrete-and-frame dwellings that are now the standard Samoan home. A small naked child is wandering about in a village square, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Street lighting in the village is new, you note.  So are the dozens of grocery stores, service stations, and the small shopping center that are slipping by you along the roadway.
 
At the hotel, you try to catch a little sleep, but you're too keyed up. The sun is just appearing over the mountains that rim the magnificent bay. The night drizzle still clings to the hibiscus blossoms on the balcony outside. No, sleep will have to come later. Now is the time to look around one more time. Now is the time to see how things have changed. And to remember how things once were.
 

Samoan History

American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900, when the paramount chiefs ceded its excellent sheltered bay to the United States for use as a navy coaling station. The Navy remained in charge until 1950, when administration of the islands was turned over to the Department of the Interior. But Navy or Interior, the official U.S. posture toward the area was one of official indifference in the island's affairs. An appointed American governor was always there but he was rotated frequently, and he rarely worried about anything that was not connected with shipping schedules. After all, the territory was smalI-76 square miles, divided into six different islands-and the population was small and friendly. It was no big deal.

Samoa in 1960 had changed little since 1900. Most Samoans still lived in small villages in thatched-roof houses devoid of running water, electricity, or sewage facilities. Roads were few, and those that existed often required four-wheel drive vehicles to negotiate them.

Family life was communal, with all land and goods under the control of family chieftains. Salaried family workers understood that their payroll check would be given to their chief, who would spend it for the good of the family. Subsistence farming and reef fishing provided food for the simple Samoan diet.

On paper, it seemed like the archetypical tropical paradise. But it was a paradise on the verge of becoming overrun by the twentieth century's most pernicious enemy-galloping overpopulation. Assisted by modem medical practices instituted by the Navy, American Samoa's population increased by 2000 per cent -- from 3,000 to 6O,OOO -- between 1900 and 1960. With limited tillable land, the island was no longer able to grow enough food to feed itself. It began to import food, but paid the price of having to develop an economy based upon dollars to pay for the imports, thus significantly altering centuries-old customs. And it exported over half its population to the United States, mostly young and middle-aged wage-earners, who sent part of their salaries back to their chiefs.

The mainland that the Samoan immigrant found was not altogether a hospitable one. They arrived in Honolulu and California strong and well-intentioned, but with no job skills, poor education, and an inability to communicate in English. The jobs that they found were menial, low-paid, last-hired-first-fired positions that offered no chance for meaningful advancement. Even educational opportunity was out of the question-though excellent schools in California and elsewhere were technically open to them, their lack of English proficiency effectively prohibited Samoans from benefiting.
 
Into this situation came H. Rex Lee. Appointed governor in 1961 by John Kennedy, he was very different from most of his predecessors. His credentials were those of a career government administrator, not political crony. Where other governors had at best concentrated on a single problem or two, Lee developed a master plan for territorial development. While other governors stayed for only a year or two, Lee remained seven. Bright, decisive, flinty, he has left his mark inexorably upon Samoan culture and landscape.
 
Today the territory is still burgeoning with Lee's considerable accomplishments. His presence is everywhere you look: the modem jetport, where the daily 747's connect the tiny territory with every comer of the earth; the system of paved primary roads, very good even by mainland standards, and exceptional in a part of the world where mud surfaces are the norm; the large, modem tourist hotel; thousands of storm proof "hurricane houses," constructed to meet the acute housing shortage brought about by the disastrous 1966 hurricane which destroyed most of the flimsier traditional Samoan thatched homes; the electrification of every village in the territory; the modem warehouse at the docks that replaced the ugly Navy-built 65-year-old tin coaling sheds; the Star-Kist and Van Camp tuna canneries, brought in to shore up the region' s economy and which remain the territory's only major private employer; the new hospital; easily the most modern, best-equipped medical facility between Honolulu and Sydney.
 
Rex Lee was Governor of American Samoa from 1961 through 1967. Lee served as FCC Commissioner after leaving Samoa, and is now Chairman of the Board of the Public Service Satellite Consortium.

And be designed an entirely new school system for the island 's 7000 school students: a consolidation of the small village one-room elementary schools into 24 newly constructed campuses, and the construction of three additional high schools to augment the one already in operation. And the design and implementation of a new central curriculum, delivering core teaching to all Samoan students through a newly constructed six-channel television station.
 
If the plan for the new educational system sounded like a bold one, it was only because Lee believed that it had to be. A major break-through had to be accomplished in the school system he inherited in 1961, which was appalling even by mainland ghetto standards.  Schools stood in each village, mostly one or two rooms, with all grades seated together, the students reciting their lessons simultaneously for the benefit of the one teacher assigned to each classroom. Attendance was supposed to be compulsory, but in fact other village events often took precedence to school work.
 
Students used hand-me-down American textbooks, where Dick and Jane lived in ranch-style brick homes with neat lawns, and Father drove home each day from his high-rise office in his red convertible, dressed in suit, tie, shoes. Never was there a glimpse of the sea in these books; never a coconut, or a taro, or a cooking fire, or an outrigger canoe, or anything vaguely resembling the Samoan environment.
 
All lessons were to be conducted in English. That was the official regulation.  The Catch-22, of course, was that hardly anybody in the village could speak. English; certainly very few of the teachers could. Lee later described the teaching corps as conscientious, hardworking, and highly respected members of their villages--but their teacher training was nonexistent and their English indecipherable. There was no reason to doubt his observations. What few high school graduates there were scored at fifth-grade levels on stateside achievement tests. And Samoan teachers were products of this school system.
 
Lee determined that an upgraded school system was a major priority. For openers, a new physical plan was in order. That was relatively easy-all that took was money, and Lee knew how to get that from the Congress. Putting the learning process in order, however, was another matter.
 
He considered his options: He could recruit an entire staff of American teachers, one for nearly every classroom. That would have an immediate effect on the quality of instruction. But it would cost a lot of money for salaries, moving expenses, and housing. And it would effectively replace most of the present Samoan teachers, many of them long-term employees whom everyone agreed were doing their best. The social disruption would be enormous, and in the end the new American teachers probably wouldn't receive the local cooperation they would need to be successful.
 
Another option Lee considered was to put a lot of money into teacher training. He could send bright young Samoans into special programs at mainland colleges, then work them into classrooms through attrition. That would preserve the traditional village social structure, and would have a long-term effect upon instructional quality.  But it would take a long time probably a full generation-for its effects to be felt throughout the entire system.
 
Lee instead began 10 consider nontraditional approaches. Rather than tinker with the existing operation, he wondered, why not design an entirely new system from the ground up? One that would be responsive to the special needs of Samoan students living in Samoa?  One that could take advantage of instructional innovation to rapidly upgrade the quality of the educational process? A twentieth-century school system with a systematically-developed curriculum, supported by modern technology?
 
Lee's deliberations took place in the early sixties, a time when the early research results from instructional television projects were beginning to reach the public. There was agreement that, given the proper circumstances , television was a viable instructional medium. Could it be viable in Samoa?  What would be required to make it work?  How long would it take to put into operation? And what were the probable immediate and long-range benefits?

 

Instructional Television Project Begun

This tramway, originally built to deliver construction materials to the mountain-top television transmitter site, is now a major tourist attraction.

Lee asked the National Association of Educational Broadcasters to conduct a study on the subject. Vernon Bronson was soon in Pago Pago, asking questions, surveying terrain, visiting schools. He concluded that a properly designed school system using television as a means for delivering core instruction could have an immediate positive impact upon instructional quality. Furthermore, this quality could be expected to increase in direct proportion to the amount of student exposure to the system.

 Bronson, never a person to pull punches, was characteristically blunt with Lee. Television, he said, was not the major component of the proposed system. What was paramount was a new central curriculum, one that was relevant to Samoa, its customs and its people. Appropriate written materials did not exist, and would have to be created by a specially-recruited staff, most of them Americans. Television lessons produced in the States were not appropriate for Samoan youngsters, and thus would have to be locally produced. This too would require new staff.
 
The present classroom teachers would require extensive in-service training to help them adjust to the new system and grow with it. All efforts allow future teachers to acquire mainland college training should be encouraged.  Samoans should be assigned to work with the recruited Americans so that the system would soon become an entirely local operation. And to give each Samoan child complete parity of educational opportunity, the program must emphasize English language instruction, with the objective of making each student completely bilingual.
 
Lee liked the plan. It provided for an immediate upgrading of educational quality. It preserved the role of the classroom teacher. It was sensitive to the Samoan custom of all going forward at the same time. It was cheaper than hiring and transporting an entirely new American teaching staff.  And at the same time when the United States was interested in demonstrating the advantages of Western technology to the emerging nations of the Third World, this was an exciting, flashy program.
 
The key elements of the system were quickly outlined:  twenty-four new campuses for the newly-consolidated school districts; a six-channel VHF television station capable of reaching every village in the territory; a four-studio production center capable of producing almost 200 television lessons every week, complete with lesson guides, worksheets, test materials; housing for the Americans that would institute the program -- about 150 curriculum specialists, engineers, principals, television and research teachers, producers, graphic artists and photographers; and print shop.
 
Lee took the idea to the Congress and came away with the money. The NAEB was contracted to hire a staff. The buildings went up. The new system was underway.
 

Was the System Effective?

Nearly everyone who came asked about the effectiveness of the system. The answer was elusive then: today, over twelve years after the first programs were transmitted, the debate still rages.

There are several reasons. Research and evaluation was not started until after the system began operation, which meant that base-line data were never reliably gathered. Also, evaluation continued to be conducted using standardized mainland tests, which were as culturally biased as the old Dick and Jane texts.

A Samoan teacher leads classroom activities that reinforce concepts from the television portion of the lesson. Three channels of instructional television are still broadcast every school day.

The chief problem in evaluating the overall effectiveness of the system, however, lies in the changes to the master plan following Lee's departure in 1967.  His successor had other priorities for territorial development, and shuffled education funds into other projects in order to meet them. He visited a crash English-language course at a west coast university, determined that its teaching method was superior to the one in operation in Samoa, called for its inclusion in the Samoan schools, then reacted angrily when educational staff pointed out that it was not designed for use with young children. Later in those pre-Watergate days, a bugging scandal emerged from the Governor's office. Telephone listening equipment was discovered that enabled the territory's highest official to listen in to calls placed by several high governmental officials, including the Director of Education. This activity drew an official reprimand from the Secretary of the Interior.

Finally, in an attempt to carve still more money out of the DOE budget, he attempted to Institute a curious salary schedule that would have put newly-hired personnel at a higher grade than those already employed, some with as much as eight years' experience in the system. The threat of mass resignation backed him down, but sagging staff morale was dealt a mortal blow. Realiz.ing that the school system could not succeed under such conditions, the NAEB withdrew from its association with Samoa in mid-I969.

In spite of the lack of data, observers of the system over the years appear to be in general agreement in their assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. The inclusion of the high schools in the early years of the system never worked well, and phased involvement with the new plan would probably have been better. No one correctly estimated the degree of difficulty involved in teaching content matter in a second language.

Finally there were the logistical problems of working in a developing area -- keeping electricity flowing, delivering supplies over the storm-tossed Pacific to schools with no roads and no docks, even a major hurricane -- all of these proved to be more serious than the planners had allowed for, and were (he cause of too much down time.

At its best, however, the new system was very good indeed. No one could seriously question the great improvement in curricular materials. If anyone needed convincing that instructional television could be made an interactive experience, the sight of Samoan children independently responding by speaking or writing to instructions given by a television teacher quickly removed all doubt. The design of lessons followed a sensible, systematic plan that coordinated reinforcement of concepts from several different subjects.

The students adapted quickly and easily to the format of receiving part of their instruction from the television and part from their classroom teacher. And it was apparent that most of the elementary teachers learned a lot about instructional management through the use of the daily lesson plans.

The shining success of the program was in its priority objective-the rapid achievement of English language skills. This was the key to everything else in the student's academic program, it was argued, because if English were mastered, then books, technical manuals, and other advanced training options would be opened up. Before the new system, it was virtually impossible to converse in English with any Samoan child. After the system was in operation for several years, this was no longer the case.

Again the hard data are missing: but a personal story may make the point. In the 1968-69 school year I was assigned to an evaluation project that required me to make numerous visits to the more remote village schools-schools that could be reached only by walking over mountain trails. People who lived in these villages rarely had any contact with outsiders, and spoke only Samoan in their daily activities. Upon arriving unannounced in their villages, it was incumbent upon me to address the village chiefs. While not unfriendly, they had some perfectly natural questions about what this unknown foreigner was doing in their town. Since I knew very little Samoan, this could have proved difficult.

Some of the new facilities constructed to replace one-room village schools. Building, complement the architectural Style of traditional Samoan dwellings.

As it turned out, it was easy, I would look for the first school-age youngster --about a fifth or sixth-grade child was perfect--and tell them the essential information. The child in turn would translate to the chiefs, who would smile a welcome, and everything would proceed swimmingly.

The key was to converse in English with a student who had been in the system for five years or so. They could speak the new language. I repeated this process several times a week for almost a year in all parts of the territory. It always worked--an outstanding example of a statistically invalid, but nonetheless absolutely convincing statistic. It never failed. Not once.

 

The Return Visit

The rain is coming down hard as you get ready to visit your first Samoan school in over seven years. You have seen the test scores from last year's graduating seniors, and you remember your village experiences as you note that English comprehension averaged in the mid-ninth grade level, a full year ahead of the class of 1975. Not bad considering that it was a standardized mainland test, and therefore culturally biased.
 
Most of last year's seniors would have had twelve full years in the new system--the first graduating class, so to speak. You also note that last year's ninth graders averaged scores one year is "educational 

lower than the class that preceded them.  You know that the heavy emphasis upon English had been diminished early in their schooling, a result of a gubernatorial decision.  You can’t be positive of the reason for the lower test scores, but you’ve got a pretty strong hunch.

You have given up on your plan to visit one of the remote schools.  The buckets of tropical rain beating down on the bay effectively eliminate any attempt to negotiate the mountain trails on this day.  So you opt for the school at Nua, on the road but on the far western end of the island, and thus relatively remote from the influences of the “city folk” in downtown Pago Pago.  It also happens to be the first school under the new school reorganization back in 1964.

It’s good to see the schools again.  Each building holds two classrooms, and is designed to resemble the lines of the traditional Samoan long house, or communal dwelling.

One of the teachers is using a TV series on Oceania as a social studies unit.  Teachers now have the option to use ITV or develop their own lessons.  Most, it seems, use ITV sparingly.  On the screen, the television teacher is talking about Japanese imperialism during World War II.  A map shows the location of Pacific islands captured by the Japanese.  The television teacher asks the students to circle these islands on their worksheet maps.  The students have no worksheets in front of them.  Hastily, booklets are distributed, and students thumb through them, searching for the map.  In most booklets, the map has been torn out of the book in some previous year.  You later learn that teachers using television lessons must make do with previously-used printed materials.  No new ones have been printed for several years because of severe budget restrictions.

Most of the teachers now use Samoan as the language of instruction.  You remember all of the structuring of lessons that used to take place to force-feed English proficiency.  You remember how committed you were to the principle that English was the key to unlocking books, entrance exams, business skills.  Now that principle had obviously changed.  You hope that they are right, and that you are wrong.

A lot of things have changed at the television studio.  In former times KVZK was entirely a Department of Education Facility – completely funded from DOE budgets, it was a beehive in activity, producing an ITV lesson each hour in each of its four studios.  Community programming for evening viewing was also acquired and scheduled by DOE personnel.

It’s much quieter now.  Only two studios remain in use, served by a common control room.  Vast expanses of the second-floor office space yawn empty.  Two yellow spiral staircases, the “golden screws”, that used to connect the offices with the studios below, have been severed and now lay rusting on the lawn outside.  Employment has been severed as well – only a small engineering staff remains, and where over thirty Samoan crew members once busied themselves in producing the heavy production load, now only four remain on the job.  They do everything – produce, direct, light, set flats, run cameras.

The station is still entirely funded by the DOE, but almost everything else has changed.  Station management is hired by and reports to the Governor.  The Governor is advised by a Honolulu-based broadcast consultant who also happens to own commercial radio and television properties in Hawaii and other Pacific islands.  In addition to heading the television operation, the present manager also runs American Samoa’s only radio station, a former government station recently sold to the same Honolulu consultant, and which now operates commercially.  There was a move last year to sell the television station to commercial interests as well, but the legislature raised a howl and the idea was quietly shelved.

But if the official status of the station its climate is commercial.  A visit with station manager Jon Anderson quickly lets you know that it's a dollars-and-cents, cost-per-unit operation these days. "When I arrived here, the place was terrifically overstaffed. We had over a hundred employees, most of them education types. Now we're down to a trim twenty or so. Much more efficient operation,” he told me.

Cut from the staff were all but two teachers, all but one writer, all maintenance crews that serviced the schools' receivers and antenna systems, the entire photo department, and all but two artists, who now do other government work. Plus the previously-mentioned studio crew members. Nearly all of the ex-employees are Samoan.
 
The equipment is much newer than you expected. Gone is the venerable early-sixties black-and-white gear. In its place sit three TK45s, producing excellent color pictures during the infrequent studio productions. Also available arc two Sony ENG units that are used in the local news programs and on occasional remotes from the villages. The single video switcher is a Grass Valley. It's a bit complicated for a one-person control room, but the crew struggles with it gamely.
 
Six relatively new Ampex 1200's grace the floor of the video tape room.  So do a couple of old TK-4· s. They are just for ITV playback, you are told--you know, the old black-and-white stuff. But the real VTR workhouse is the bank of 3/4-inch cassette players.
 
Most of the station's syndicated programming is shipped on cassette.  The station now operates three channels--2, 4, and 5-instead of its original six. All programming is in color except for what Anderson refers to as "the old ITV stuff”. He expects to buy three new transmitters this year to replace the original GE's.
 
ITV programming still occupies three channels during the school day.  Only three series have been recently produced, however, the rest coming off the shelf from programs produced as long ago as 1964. The tapes are old, the material dated, and much of it is no longer appropriate for the intended grade level. But they continue to be broadcast—it’s all they have. "The DOE requested four channels for ITV this year, "Anderson is saying," but a little arithmetic showed they could squeeze everything into three. So we gave 'em three."
 
Community television begins at three each afternoon, filling two, sometimes three channels until midnight.  It's a curious programming mix. Channel 4 is a non-interconnected PBS station, running a few local programs and most of the PBS schedule at the end of an eight-week bicycle. This part of the operation is heavily subsidized by a CPB community service grant—over $545,000 in FY 1976, according to CPB figures. Only thirteen other licensees received higher CSG's that year, all of them either big-city major production centers or multiple-station state networks. Anderson, however, isn't entirely happy with the arrangement.  “All that PBS stuff comes to us pretty late," he says.  “And it's on two-inch tape, which is heavy. It costs us a fortune to ship it."
 
Channel 2, on the other hand, is referred to by the manager as "an NBC affiliate”. The description seems apt. Channel 2 carries the entire NBC schedule--soap operas, game shows, Chancellor-Brinkley, Carson, Saturday Night--everything on a one-week delay, taped on cassette off-air from KPIX in San Francisco. Channel 2 broadcasts all commercials along with the programming. The station receives no revenue from the advertising, according to Anderson. nor does the station pay for the programming.
 
As I left the studio, the lobby monitor was tuned to Channel 4. Days of Our Lives was the current offering. "Do you have any sexual experience?" one woman was asking another. Dramatic pause. "Do you mean, am I a virgin?”, Margaret Mead, where are you now, I wondered. The screen faded to black, then up on the spots: Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Pizza, Sears decorator rugs, Pepsi.  Yes, Margaret, you really should be here now.
 

Samoan Problems and Future Prospects

Governors are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, and the territory is now operating under its fifth governor in nine years. There are likely to be two more between now and January 1978. Each arrives with a fresh team of advisors, and each quickly formulates new policy directions for each major department of island government, education included.
 
Long before any major objectives can be planned and accomplished, the Governor leaves for some other appointment, and a new one arrives, complete with another fresh team and different ideas. The FY 1977 territorial budget calls for expenditures of $42.5 million, most of it supplied by the U.S. Congress. But long-range planning simply doesn't exist.
 
The type of person appointed to the governorship is central to the island's problems. The three governors following Lee included the son of the chairman of the House Interior sub-committee, a major West Coast fund-raiser for the 1968 Nixon campaign, and an ex-football coach turned lame-duck Congressman.  The present Governor is in the same mold: short-term FBI agent, partner in a law firm headed by an influential Senator, and state CREEP director. Appointed only since October 1, 1976, his tenure is already controversial.  Locals call him at best insensitive to Samoans, perhaps even racist.  A mid-November editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser called for his removal. The new Carter administration will have to decide whether to replace him with a Democratic appointee or allow him to serve out 1977 until the Samoans choose their first popularly-elected Governor in November. Either way Samoa is in for another year or two of wallowing without long-term leadership. The idea of a Samoan sitting in the Governor's house is not without peril, since it does jeopardize the island's direct tie to the mainland political process and the Congressional appropriations that it produces.
 
In spite of the problems, life in Samoa remains placid, a reflection of the resilient nature of the Samoan people. Their islands continue to be counted among the most beautiful anywhere in the world. The climate remains kind. The coconuts continue to grow in the trees, and the reef is still alive with fish trapped in shallow pools at low tide.
 
There are impressive gains to consider: the Samoan standard of living is the highest by far of all the neighboring Pacific island nations; Samoans do occupy nearly every position of responsibility in their local government; they do own nearly every business in the territory.
 
In a period of time that has introduced much social and technological change, Samoans have been successful in retaining much of their national character and customs. They respond to insensitive intervention with techniques of passive resistance that would be instructive even to a Gandhi.  They're indomitable. They’re going to be just fine, you're sure. And you hope you're right.

 

 

Tag: 

Last modified: 

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 15:08