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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.


Wen-ai said...

Another well-written article! Very insightful. I am too, have always been puzzled by the "internal bell curve" bullshit. Not only in PSLE, but also during my NTU days. Im not too sure whether the Uni is still practising the internal bell curve grading system, but fellow friends who graduated from renowned foreign Universities often gaped at the degree of difficulty in our course work and were often glad that they "had it easy" in their foreign Unis and could easily get their 1st class honors with both eyes closed. It just seems to me that we are being "penalised" in our own country's system, esp when compared in an international level. One one hand, I agree that we should not allow our standards to slip, but one has to draw a line somewhere right?

Malar said...

Wow! good article. I totally agree with you!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post!

ladybird said...

Just the other day my son who is in P6 this year asked me for help to solve a maths question on 'speed'. After reading the mind-boggling question, I questioned why the setter had to set such difficult maths questions for the P6 pupils that even the teachers themselves have difficulty solving. Agreeing, my son replied that his teacher was thankful she was provided with model answers for these questions.

I am just wondering what is the point?

petunialee said...

Wen-Ai: I feel quite strongly about this. It causes a lot of stress to children.

petunialee said...

Malar - Thank you!

petunialee said...

Theanne - That's great to hear!!

petunialee said...

ladybird - I know... oh I so know... Would you email the link to this post to other P6 parents please?

Trebuchet said...

I'm an SG teacher and I agree completely with you. And I would add a mention of the egregious PRISM thing that measures the expected student output at S4 against the normalised input at P6, thus determining 'value-addedness' or 'value-subtractedness'. Daft!

petunialee said...

Trebuchet - Please... this is important... email this link to all you know.

Misc said...

What a great post! Thanks.

This bell curve thing scares me really. It's not about doing enough anymore. It's about outdoing others and it puts everyone in constant fear and stress.

If I'm not wrong, our Singapore- Cambridge GCE o and a level is harder then those taken by the other commonwealth countries. The papers has the word sIngapore meaning MOE gets to decide in some way how difficult the papers should be to cater for their need to fit the bell curve.

When my son had an opportunity to take up the 6- year IBDP prog, and he was so keen to join the school, we took the offer straight away because the IBDP is criteria based. My daughter most likely can get in to RGS but we seriously want her to consider SOTA just to avoid this bell curve thing and also all the schools competition for all kinds of popularity awards.Basically, we want to avoid the mainstream if possible. It does not matter if people taunt us for doing it differently, what matters is the learning
journey and that they finished school feeling educated,

Thanks for helping us to verbalise our frustration.

Misc said...

Great Post!

Is this bell curve thing also done to the 'o' and 'a' level? I wonder. I was told by a teacher that they do it. they don't use t- score like in PSLE, maybe they modulate the marks before releasing the results. So if you get 75, you may get A2 instead of A1 because the paper was easy.

Aye, sick sick sick. Our poor kids. I also think all those intensive tuition is a form of child abuse. Can't wait for my girl to finish Pri Sch. Hoping she will be interested in SOTA so she can avoid all these. My son is in Sports School doing the IBDP. It's criteria based and paper set purely by the IB, no interference by moe. If my girl does not go SOTA, I hope she can get a scholarship to get into sJI International to do the IB in sec3

Alice said...

I am a silent reader of your blog. This article resonates with me. Can I have your permission to post it on my facebook account?

petunialee said...

Alice - Please do! Please do! Post this anywhere. Email to anyone. Copy wholesale. My blog is free and I don't care who copies.

Yongzhi said...

Fair post and cogently written. However, I'm not sure if there exists a better alternative.

With respect to the portrait of Primary School ratraces you have painted: every parent is playing the Prisoner's Dilemma. Everyone hopes that his/her child has a chance to beat out everyone else. That's why more and more is spent on tuition ("Defecting"), resulting in the children of poorer families losing out.

Removing the Bell Curve does not resolve this problem.

Furthermore, I believe the graph for PSLE difficulty should be an upside-down L-shaped curve. Like the graph for rate of reaction. It starts out fast-paced, moving up and up, but eventually it slows down and reaches a limit. As you will have realized, there is only so much you can help your child with before it just burns his brain. I don't know how humans will evolve in the future, but I do know that 20 years from now, no P6 student will be doing Calculus in PSLE.

So the future isn't that bleak after all.

Certainly we live in an extremely competitive society. Our students have done exceedingly well overseas. But, to me, that is an indicator of the success of our current education system, rather than of it's flaws.

I would like to note, finally, that large class sizes are due to a lack of resources and manpower rather than anything else. No one wants to deprive the kids. And streaming is perhaps the best way to deal with "individual" needs on a nationwide level - by grouping people with similar needs in similar classes. There will always be outliers, and people at the fringes, who may perhaps be less suited to what the teacher of that class teaches. There are recourses: tuition, appeal, do well in exam and get promoted to a better class. I hail from TNS and the classes go from I to A (in academic quality). Every year, students could get "promoted" or "demoted" based on their performance.

I'm not saying that our education is the best system there could be, and I empathize with your concerns fully (I myself am a student at present). But I find myself asking the question: is there any better alternative? And if none comes immediately to mind, then- is our system perhaps the best we can make do with our limited resources?

petunialee said...

YongZhi - Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts. People can disagree but the various perspectives are valuable because they add richness.

If one fears that there is no better alternative before even beginning to search for one, then one will never find another alternative. The guy who found America, believed he would find something. Possibilities are in the mind. If one cannot envisage better possibilities than what we have experienced, then man would never have learnt to fly, the 4 minute mile would never have been breached, and no one would have found the coelacanth alive in the waters of Indonesia.

The Americans are studying the Finnish and we are copying the Americans. Culture and mindset can be moulded with the correct system tools. The bell curve in the hands of a psychologist like me is a tool. I use it with skill and nuance. I don't let it use me. Makes sense?

The Finns evolved from a system of ability streaming to the one it has today, and has managed to have one of the most highly qualified workforces in the world.

See Time Magazine article here -,9171,2062419,00.html

petunialee said...

The to Time won't copy. You may wanna search for "Time Magazine Finnishing School". Finnish with 2 "n"s.

Angela said...

Hi Petunia
I was browsing through OnSponge when I came across your petition and signed it after reading it. I have also forwarded it to my friends and if you don't mind, would like your permission to post it on my Facebook page. Thank you for doing this.
I believe that MOE uses the Bell curve in order to sift out the creme de la creme, to channel them into our RI, RGS, HCI and eventually to feed into the Administrative Service. However, I feel that they already have the Gifted Education Programme for that. Much as I do not agree with tagging kids as "gifted" vs "non-gifted" at P3, I am happy to let that programme continue but it should run on its own separate path from the majority. The GEP kids should NOT sit the same PSLE papers as the non-GEP kids, as this results in a large number of the questions being crafted to identify the more gifted of the gifted! Let the GEP kids be stretched, hothoused, groomed, Bell-curved for RI/RGS. But let the rest of our kids grow and develop at a pace that is more manageable and appropriate for their maturity level. I am happy to NOT have my son in this elite GEP group if the price he has to pay is his sanity and childhood.
Our education policy is much like the PAP's asset enhancement policy... and look at the dire consequences this has resulted in! My son is in P5 this year and he is under increasing stress every year. I totally agree with your Little Boy about the bubble bursting and am worried that once broken, no parent/counsellor/psychologist can make our children whole again!
regards, angela hon

petunialee said...

Angela - Please copy anything you want and put it anywhere you want. This message must reach as many as possible. I don't even care if credit is not given back to me. By the way, I agree with all your points... and especially like the one about ONCE BROKEN, THEY MAY POSSIBLY BE MADE WHOLE AGAIN.

petunialee said...

Angela - Please encourage all your friends to spread the word too. Thanks!!

Gaara24 said...

Hi Petunia
I don't suppose you know how I can share or paste the link to your petition on my FB page? Sorry but I am very IT challenged!!

petunialee said...

Hi Angela - Would you mind logging into kiasuparents to send a Private Message to Chenonceau. I will reply you there? Blogger does not seem to allow me to past hyperlinks.

Or else, if you dun mind, you can leave your email in a new comment to this post. I will email you but will not publish your comment.

Little Bear said...

MOE seeks ways to beat the heat in class!

It is so sad, MOE still don't get it. They rather spend time and money on hardware.

Ivana said...

Good grief Petunia.... my kids are now 4 and 2 respectively. I am rather fearful of what lies in store for them. You know me.... I want them to have a childhood and refuse all sorts of unnecessary enrichment.... yet I know that if I do not turn into alphamama soon, I may end up with kids with very low self esteem as they try to tackle work for a 10yr old at age 6.

My good friends, because of this are also looking to migrate. I mean, they have HAD to attend parent-child meetings because my goddaughter is averaging a 7 out of 10 score.