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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KPIs Don't Make An Educator

Some time last year, my bible taught me that to worship God using dressed stones, was to dishonour Him. "Dressed stones" are defined as stones which have been reworked by man. I can understand why. It's because God's work is perfect, and no matter the skill of man, it cannot surpass the work of God.

Think about it. When you think breath-taking beauty, do you think of the Esplanade or the Twin Towers? These structures are imposing, no doubt, but they don't draw from you the gasp of admiration or quicken your heart beat. Think now instead of the savage beauty of the Kalahari Desert, or the misty ranges surrounding Guilin, or the wild craggy handsomeness of the Scottish Highlands, or even the stunning perfection of a sleeping baby...

The thing about management theory and practice is that much of it is man made. Everything from Performance Management Systems to KPI setting to Chaos Theory to the Vroom-Jago model, to the science of Transformational Leadership are man's paltry attempts to pin down, describe, understand and control human psychology... a reality which people can neither see nor touch, but is not for all that, any less awe inspiring, complex nor beautiful. Researchers with their PhDs in Psychology are so proud of their Psychological Science but in truth, every theoretical model and theoretical principle are but clumsy approximations of a vast and complex reality.

Dressed stones they are. Every one.

No management consultant will tell you that there are limitations to the KPIs system (Key Performance Indicators). No researcher that delves into goal setting will crow about the limitations of setting quantitative goals. But there ARE limitations... there ARE negative effects. These are known and not said. Management consultants wanna sell their expertise. Profs who study goal setting wanna get tenure. In their communications, 95% is coolio and only 5% is no-no. Unfortunately, our Ministry of Education is managed by KPIs.

To understand the limitations of KPI setting, let us look at Husband Performance. First, let us define what a good husband is...

(1) Good provider
(2) Humorous
(3) Comforts me through my emotional ups and downs
(4) Protects me totally and completely
(5) Does household chores I dun like to do

Next, let us develop KPIs for each of the above performance dimensions
(1) Target to give wife $2000/= in spending money and another $3000/= for family expenses at the end of every month
(2) Target to make wife laugh twice every weekday night and 6 times on weekends.
(3) Target to make wife smile through her tears 100% of the time after every emotional heartbreak (caused by anyone or anything at all, from bossy mothers-in-law to irritating colleagues to bad bonuses)
(4) Protect wife from own mother (and mice and cockroaches and rapists and cheats) 100% of the time.
(5) Does 100% of the household chores (because I dun like to do any)

Now, when you have set KPIs, you need to tie them to an incentive. Mostly, KPIs are tied to more money (i.e., bonuses and promotions). That's because most people like money. Just like most husbands like kisses. So, when managing Husband Performance KPIs, we need to tie the KPIs to kisses. Every time a husband (not mine because I don't manage my husband with KPIs) meets his KPIs, he gets more kisses. This will motivate husbands to meet the KPIs.

Can you see any problem with the above? I see plenty of problems.

Firstly, KPIs don't capture the complexity and richness of the love a husband bears his wife. There is that slight touch of the hand in the dark. There is touching foreheads over a baby's cot. There is the diamond solitaire sitting in a velvet box underneath a half full wine glass. There is the sms from wherever he has travelled to, to let me know he is safe. KPIs cannot capture the complexity and richness of what it means to be a good husband. Can they capture the complexity and richness of being a good educator?

Secondly, focusing a husband's attention on the KPIs and tying it to kisses, cheapens the husband as an individual, and cheapens the husband as a role. Very soon, the husband might say "What's so great about your kisses? I don't need nor want them. I want out of this marriage." Focusing educators' attentions on KPIs and tying everything to money, cheapens the role of the educator and every individual who plays that role. Not surprisingly, many decide, "What's so great about your money? I can get more elsewhere."

Thirdly, KPIs are inflexible. If you've set for your husband a KPI to make you laugh every night, what about nights when you don't want to laugh? Sometimes, the best thing for a child is to do poorly at a subject so that he or she can recover from a flu. KPIs that focus on pass rate don't account for such situations. They are blind numbers and it is the blind human that puts so much faith in them.

Fourthly, what happened to the nobler aspect of being a husband if all his husbanding instincts are driven by KPIs? So too, one might ask, what happened to the nobler aspect of education if Teachers are all driven by KPIs?

Kisses are a part of every marriage. Why use them to motivate? Money is a part of every employment relationship. Why use it to motivate? The human soul is capable of greater nobility than that which can be stimulated with kisses and money.

Not everything that is precious about living and learning can be quantified.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mr Grizzly and Grandpa Grizzly

Mr Grizzly is my building contractor. He is a young-ish man with an air of eagerness and sincerity about him. He has the quality few young people have of knowing how to hesitate and wait. And he is gentle and he is kind.

But when Grandpa Grizzly comes by to inspect the house, a subtle coldness comes over Mr Grizzly. Grandpa Grizzly was the one who started the building construction company his son now runs. As the older man gives over the reins of the business to his son, they share a conflicted relationship.

Grandpa Grizzly likes to dispense advice (which I appreciate and seriously consider because it is often very wise). Often, as Grandpa Grizzly expounds on the merits of this or that, one can feel cold waves of disapproval cascade off the tall frame of Mr Grizzly, as he stands there too respectful to publicly disagree with his Father... and too much his own man to pretend to agree.

In some moments of pique, Grandpa Grizzly confides that the two have yelling matches wherein Mr Grizzly tells his father "I am now in charge. At work, you do what I say. If you wanna be my Dad, that can wait till after 7pm. Now go and make sure that the external walls are properly waterproofed."

"He is a bad boy" says Grandpa Grizzly, "but he is my son and if he asks, I must help. I have more than 30 years of experience in building. If I don't help him, who can?" Then, in his unguarded moments, Grandpa Grizzly's eyes shine with pride even as he complains about the son who will be his own man, and walk his own path, outside of his father's shadow. "My son is a university graduate" says Grandpa Grizzly. "My son does what he says he will do. He is a man of his word," says he.

Mr Grizzly is tight-lipped about his father. I imagine that Grandpa Grizzly was old school and tough on his son. Corporal punishment and loud scoldings would have been part of his childhood. I suppose there must be some resentment? Meanwhile Mr Grizzly's silent loyalty to his father speaks well of the family ties that bind them both, each to the other.

It is a very interesting relationship.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sign the Petition to Give Our Children Back Their Childhood

To all who care about the wellbeing of children in Singapore, please sign this petition -

Thursday, May 5, 2011

We Do Not Have An Equal Opportunity Educational System

If this post resonates with you, please support the petition here -

It has become accepted truth that when the population is large enough, people fall along a normal distribution curve (or bell curve) in just about every phenomenon. Fat-to-skinny people. Tall-to-short people. Smart-to-stupid people. High academic scores to low academic scores. Very few are at the very top, and very few at the very bottom. Most people are average. Click the following link to see how the RED LINE denotes the bell curve (or standard normal distribution) - .

In educational testing (as well as in employee performance management) people force fit the grades into a bell curve - because the assumption is that every population, if large enough would fit a normal distribution curve (i.e., a bell curve).

Is this true?

One innovative HR Director (trained as an engineer and with a tendancy to question/challenge consultants) told me bluntly one day. "If I recruit well and have a conducive environment for high performance, why should my staff performance grades fall along a normal distribution curve? Why should I force fit my people so that I can pay bonuses along a bell curve? Here, in this company, about 50% of my people can get A performance grade because they are both smart (we recruited well) and hardworking (we have a conducive environment). In this company we do not shy away from paying people the bonuses they deserve. If I recruit well and manage well, my performance bell curve should be skewed. The normal distribution curve works with random events. In here, performance is not random. It is managed."

Singaporean students often end up top of the heap in top end educational institutions abroad. We win the Angus Ross prize every year. Singaporeans graduate valedictorians in Ivy League universities. Singaporeans competed with Americans and became the first non-American (not first Singaporean) to top the cohort or win some prize or other. Are we genetically smarter? Probably not. Are we better educated? Probably yes.The MOE of the past decades TAUGHT well. Singapore education is a managed environment. Parents, teachers, tutors manage the education so well that our students breeze through alternative education systems without breaking stride.

Let's use the exact words of my HR Director friend to argue for why we should not be doing bell curve grading in the PSLE.

"If I TEACH well and have a conducive environment for LEARNING, why should my STUDENTS' grades fall along a normal distribution curve? Why should I force fit my STUDENTS so that I can pop them into the right educational institutions? Here, in this COUNTRY, about 80% of my people can get A performance grade because we TEACH well and STUDENTS are hardworking. In this COUNTRY, we do not shy away from giving students the opportunities they deserve. If I TEACH well and STUDENTS study hard, my performance bell curve should be skewed. The normal distribution curve works with random events. In this COUNTRY, STUDENT performance is not random. It is managed."

The PSLE gets more and more difficult because no one dares to question the tyranny of the bell curve. If, in this year's PSLE, the bell curve is skewed, the exam is considered poorly set because it is too easy. Next year's exam gets harder... so that the bell curve's belly goes back to closer to the middle (i.e., curve looks more like a normal distribution one). Then guess what, the schools push the students harder to do better. More classes, tougher homework, more homework. Thanks to parent and school hothousing, the kids rise to the occasion and the bell curve is skewed again. So the following year's PSLE gets a little bit harder. More hothousing follows as people try to catch up with the bell curve. More enrichment. More tuition. Loving parents these days teach students to read thick books in TWO languages before Primary 1 in order to give their children a headstart. Others are exposing two year olds to Primary 1 Math concepts. When these babies grow up to PSLE age, the bell curve would have moved ahead of them… and they may well find that despite all their trouble, their kids may still be behind the curve, simply because the system chases the bell curve and standards WILL move.

Unfortunately too, many bright kids from underprivileged homes do not have the benefit (or misfortune) of being taught thus from such an early age. Carried to the extreme, bell curve grading DOES NOT make for equal opportunity because exams get harder and harder... and eventually those who make it, do so only because their parents have the wherewithal to coach and buy tuition.

What makes the Singapore educational system even more competitive is that we categorize and pigeonhole our students by their position on the bell curve (i.e., the PSLE t-score). Depending on the PSLE t-score, our kids are pigeon-holed into top schools or bottom schools. If you get into a top school, the world is your oyster. You travel to Germany and Canada to take part in research conferences and international camps. You study from enhanced syllabuses. You get the best teachers… some of them with doctorates. I know because my daughter went to a top school. If you get into a bottom school, then your learning is defined by gangs. I know because some acquaintances are Principals in bottom schools.

The t-score combined with the pigeonhole (top school… bottom school) is a lethal combination that leads to frenzied competition for the top positions along the bell curve. The only pity is that the child’s own ability matters less and less, whilst his/her access to enrichment resources matters more and more. People complain that we are a tuition/enrichment nation without evaluating the reasons for it. We are a tuition nation because grading along the bell curve has allowed PSLE standards to behave like a runaway train that even MOE’s teachers cannot cope with. Hence, parents turn to enrichment centres.

Our educational system is a train going frenziedly faster past its destination called "Genius Standards", and it keeps on going. Meanwhile, our children are exhausted and hothoused so much they work hours that are illegal under many countries' employment laws.

Is the PSLE cut-off point the only way to distribute student talent? Why can't we pick a number of secondary schools and call them GOOD schools? Then distribute resources equally amongst these schools, without overly concentrating resources at only the top 4 schools. Put students in these GOOD schools RANDOMLY who range from 240 to 280 in the PSLE t-score. This way, it may be less precise but it is still possible to teach compared to a range that stretches from 180 to 280. This way too, secondary students evolve with classmates of varying abilities. They make friends. Elitism does not get a chance to take root. Delinquents aren't concentrated in any one school either. Mixed ability teaching teaches many life lessons which our best and brightest should learn - empathy, compassion, helping friends, loving (not competing).

In 2008, Ng Eng Hen publicly unveiled plans to move the educational system towards greater individual attention (i.e., student-centric). See link here for original report. This would mean smaller classes, and with smaller classes and individualized attention, mixed ability classes would have been possible. Today in 2011, class sizes have little changed.

How do you give individual attention in a class of 40+?

Last year, Little Boy was a 90+ student in all his subjects except Chinese. This year, he was streamed into the 2nd best class where he is taught like he was an 80+ student for all subjects. In Math, he is getting masses of easy worksheets and no practice at all to tackle the 4 most difficult questions in every paper. The 40 students in the best class skip all the easy worksheets and go straight for the challenging type questions. Little Boy has the potential to handle the challenging questions but since he was not getting taught in school (since he is not in the best class), he will not learn to handle them if I don’t teach him at home. If there is individual attention, it comes from me.

To help him cope with the most difficult questions in his Math exam, I have to teach him concepts that his Teacher does not teach. You see, Teachers also don't teach everything the exams test if you are in the wrong class. PSLE standards are now so high that there is too much to teach and too much for the textbook to document. Hence, Teachers must choose what to teach to whom, and textbooks don’t contain much of what exams test. Too bad if you are streamed into a class that under-teaches to your ability because you won’t be prepared for the most difficult questions in the PSLE.

7 short years ago, I hardly helped The Daughter through her PSLE. She had no tuition and was just about literate only in Primary 1. She managed on her own without enrichment, and still got into a top school. I realize that seven years on, Little Boy cannot even pass exams without external enrichment. The system has become completely over-geared in 7 short years.What will happen to high IQ students who don't have a Mother like me, able to take time off work to coach them? Or those whose parents cannot afford tuition? Or those who weren't taught Primary 1 Math from age 2? Or those who didn't learn to read thick books in two languages before Primary 1?

Fastforward 20 years hence. Some high IQ kids with their progress blocked by lack of tuition and parental coaching would be adult. They ARE high IQ remember? Their only failure was that they didn’t have rich and educated parents who could afford tuition (or who were educated enough to teach them). These underprivileged children with high IQ will be young adults... full of drive and hunger to succeed? If the legitimate avenues to success are blocked, they will turn to illegitimate avenues. One cannot underestimate the human drive to succeed. We would have top class criminal minds pitted against a civil service that is bureaucratic and tired. By then, what can we do? Turn the clock back?

Thanks to bell curve grading, PSLE standards are a runaway train that even MOE’s teachers can't cope with, so kids NEED tuition, which poorer homes cannot afford.

See the sequel to this post here.