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Monday, September 23, 2013

Root of the Tuition Craze

Stage 1: Learning from Testing Experts in USA

It all started with some high calibre MOE officials attending a course in the USA which taught them that a good exam should be one that differentiates the A from the A*. Thenceforth, much effort then went into the PSLE to make it a good differentiating exam. There MUST always be 2 or 3 questions at the higher end of the difficulty spectrum to sieve out the A* from the hoi polloi.

Stage 2: Applying What Was Learnt Without Using Good Judgment (nor Critical Thinking)

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Very soon, the school preliminary PSLE exams in Primary 6 followed suit. Not long after, schools began this practice of setting differentiating exams at every CA and SA from Primary 1 to Primary 5.

By right, Teachers should teach 100% of the material tested. The children would then differentiate themselves along the spectrum of questions based on...
(1) their ability to follow lessons
(2) their drive to excel
(3) their ability to work hard

The proportion of A* versus A needed to follow the bell curve, else, the exam is not properly differentiating. Indeed, at the very extreme of such reasoning, I've even been taught that if even 1 student scores 100% on an exam, then it isn't differentiating enough because the exam is unable to pinpoint with exactitude whether that 100% student's ability lies just above the 100% or way beyond the 100%.

The problem though is that the bell curve (or normal distribution curve) is a natural statistical feature of large populations. Issues arise when we decide to force smaller populations into the bell curve. School populations are quite small indeed, especially when you're looking at a single level at any one time for any one exam.

Stage 3: The Catalysts For Frenzy (Harder Exams and Wealthy Parents)

Soon, teachers began to realise that if they tested ONLY all that they had taught, the entire top class would get 100%. Teachers began to feel that they'd done something wrong. Principals and HODs well versed in the GOLDEN WAY OF DIFFERENTIATING EXAMS began to look askance at these Teachers who set such easy exams. Oh dear me... your exams are too easy. You can't be a very good Teacher since you can't set good differentiating exams. 

It didn't take long for some teachers to begin sliding into the exams that they devised, questions meant for later levels, in order to ensure that not too many students in the tested level can score 100%.

Now, enter the initially teeny weeny percentage of those wealthy parents who had been enriching their children since egg and sperm. THEIR kids had been taught stuff from later levels. These little kiddy biddies had been taught the stuff that Teachers did not teach. This small population of students became the A* students on these exams that tested material from later levels.

These A* students (who had been pre-taught) went to the top class.

In view of the many benefits inherent in being streamed into the A class, parents (like me) of other intelligent children began to analyze exam papers to figure out why our own intelligent children were scoring poorly in school (despite being conscientious and intelligent). Once we realized that the exams contained questions that Teachers had not taught, but that other children had learnt in enrichment, we began to ask...

"Hey... my child can score too if he had been given the same enrichment. The only reason why my child is not in the top class is that I denied him enrichment in order to grow his self-reliance. It's MY fault for failing to enrich him."

Stage 4: Less Wealthy Parents Jump On the Bandwagon

These less wealthy parents (like me) have now a Hobson's Choice -
(1) Save money on enrichment and watch their children languish (whilst they learn self-reliance)
(2) Spend money on enrichment to give their children a fair chance in the system (even though they never develop self-reliance thereby)

Of course, there are the few parents, like me, who know how to help their children study beyond what Teachers have taught, without resorting to enrichment. Thank God Little Boy learnt self-reliance (by self-studying material his Teacher didn't teach but did test) and didn't suffer too much academically at all.

Less wealthy people exist in far greater numbers than wealthy people.

Once the less wealthy people understand that wealthy people's children do well (and can get into the best funded top schools... and get into the best classes) because they learn (at enrichment) what the schools don't teach (but do test), it means hordes of people will sign their children up for enrichment in order to give their children a fighting chance. I mean HORDES. 

A Mastercard survey done in April shows that 50% of households pay for enrichment. The Asian Development Bank reports that 90% of students have enrichment/tuition of some sort. These figures come from Chua Mui Hoong's article in The Straits Times, 22nd September 2013. I have reproduced part of it HERE.

The Limitations of Tuition

Of course, children differ in motivation levels and attitude. 

In Dr Pet's English Enrichment, I have intelligent children who perform poorly for whatever the reason may be. Little J is one of them. Little C is another one. I am now collaborating with Little A's mommy to see if we can turn Little A's attitude around. All these children can perform at higher levels if not for their poor attitudes. Getting tuition is not enough to get good results. 

This is no different than in the past, when Teachers taught 100% of what they tested. Going to school was not enough. The children needed to work hard too.

That which is different now, is this. A hardworking and intelligent child who goes to school (but has no enrichment) will do as badly or worse than a lazy and intelligent child (whose days are filled with enrichment). 

Explaining MOE's Delusions
There are people at MOE who have spent their whole lives working there. To acknowledge the Tuition Craze as a real phenomenon whose roots lie in key MOE practices, is to shake their sense of professional self-worth to its very core. This is very very painful emotionally. Have you ever met people who refuse to believe that their spouse has died? For these people, to believe the reality of a spouse's death is just too emotionally painful. They delude themselves otherwise.

This happens to the most intelligent of people. The human capacity for self-delusion is not to be underestimated. It is a powerful psychological force. Even in the last days of his Arab Spring, Mubarak gave press interviews asserting that his countrymen loved him very much. He was not lying. He really believed what he was saying.

Either MOE is lying through its teeth when it says that schools are run on the basis that tuition is not needed... or it really is self-deluded. I am more inclined to believe that MOE is delusional instead of lacking in integrity. The first is understandable. The second is unlikely because the people who run the civil service do usually demonstrate high levels of integrity (barring the rare Ng Boon Gays and the Peter Lims, the Lee Lip Hongs with a fetish for underaged prostitutes and that CPIB Director who embezzled money).

Whether delusional or lacking in integrity, MOE's response to parent feedback for the past decade has been as Chua Mui Hoong writes (in her 22nd September Straits Times article Tuition Too Prevalent To Ignore) "... this rather ostrich-like way of tackling the issue: not needed, not an issue, go away."

No matter what parents raise to MOE (bad textbooks, too large classes, testing beyond what is taught) the response is "not needed, not an issue, go away." It really shouldn't be called Ministry of Education. It should be called Ministry of the Ostrich Endside, instead. See picture below.

The least Indranee Rajah could have done was to give what MOE told her some critical thought, before making a pronouncement that sounds a bit like "The world is flat" to the ears of Singaporean parents. Every time politicians make such ridiculous pronouncements, they destroy trust with the populace.

Credit: My Sketchbook.

Tackling the Root
Stop chasing student differentiation. Instead, set a reasonably high bar of performance at every level and strive to bring as many of the children up to that bar as possible. Ensure that Teachers are capable of and have the resources to teach up to that bar. In this scenario, only the very weak will need tuition help. The bright ones (like my son) can learn all they need from Teachers.

The wealthy parents who want to hot house their kids to enter university at age 12, can do so on their own money and their own time. Their kiasu behaviors should not be rewarded by having their kids gain entrance into top classes and top schools. Other parents whose kids wanna be stretched can stretch them on their own time and own money for no other gains but the sheer joy of learning and getting good at something. Those who are gifted at something thus practise their giftings for passion alone... not in order to get into top schools and gain top scholarships.


Anonymous said...

This makes me wonder if the ministers' children have tuition, and if not, what kind of schools do they go to that they are able to rely on their teachers to get (presumably) good results?

Also, this is off-topic, but why are SC children not allowed to study in international schools in Singapore? Not ever child is suited for the Singapore system, but it seems they have no other options, apart from emigrating.

Petunia Lee said...

SG children are not allowed to study in international schools in Singapore because LKY believed that our children needed to be forged into a single nation. He didn't want Indians to go into Indian international schools. The Chinese to go into Chinese international schools etc... It was for the purpose of nation building.

The focus on nation building has been lost in the past decade. The government has let in so many foreigners that Singapore has once again become a meeting place of different nations. They might as well just allow SG kids to go into international schools since our local schools take in so many foreigners anyway.

Melodies said...

My ex-neighbour's SC daughter is currently studying in an international school in Singapore. MOE does approve it on the case-by-case basis (but must have good reason).

Managed to dip out the old news:

Channel News Asia
April 11, 2006
By Asha Popatlal,

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew hopes Singaporeans can emulate the American spirit of self-help where citizens get together to do what's needed instead of looking to the government for assistance.
He made this call at the Singapore American School's 50th anniversary celebrations.

The school first opened its doors in 1956 in a colonial house with just over a hundred students.

Since then it has grown from strength to strength, and is now the largest international school in the world, with 3450 students.

In many ways, its growth and success has mirrored that of Singapore, the country it's located in.

US Ambassador to Singapore, Patricia Herbold, said: "What stands out most to me is the fact that neither Singapore American School nor Singapore rested on its laurels. They consistently looked to the future and planned for tomorrow. Both have been blessed with exceptional leaders who have grasped opportunities that have resulted in continuous growth and adaptation."

But there is one difference.

And that's the American trait of self-help.

The school itself was set up by a group of American businessmen and their spouses, not the American embassy.

And it's this characteristic that MM Lee hopes Singaporeans can emulate.

He said: "As Singapore companies go abroad and have to expand, Singapore expatriates have to set up their own international schools. But unlike Americans who get together and set up their own international schools, Singaporeans write to their government and say 'please set up such schools for us'."

For Mr Lee, the help extended by the Singapore American School was also personal as it has touched the life of his grandson.

Addressing the Singapore American School (SAS), MM Lee said: "I also had a grandson who could not fit into our schools. He had an IQ of 140, so he is not a stupid boy. But he was having trouble. His brother was scoring and he was not because he was dyslexic and he had to learn two languages - English and Chinese.

"So, the Education Ministry allowed him to opt out of the system. We did not have the specialist teachers to cater for people like him. He joined the SAS and at your school, your teachers helped him cope with his dyslexia and in the process restored his self esteem and confidence, and he's done well. Your staff support the American community and they have brought benefits to Singaporeans. Thank you." - CNA/ir

Petunia Lee said...

Thanks Melodies!

If SC kids were given a choice, I think many will opt out of the MOE system. Already, many parents are homeschooling.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I don't have any school-aged kids, but some friends were looking to put their kid in an international school because they didn't like the local system and found that they couldn't. And they mentioned how unfair they thought it was that foreigners and PRs had more choice in education than locals, which I thought was a valid point. Why should those who are willing to pay for a different education system be denied the chance to? It just seems very 'one size fits all', and to me, education shouldn't be.

Melodies said...

Most international schools have long waiting lists and preference is given to their own citizens. It's difficult for SC children to get a place in international schools anyway.

I have been seeing many families and friends migrated oversea years after years for the sake of their children' education as their children are not suited for the Singapore education system.

The irony is that while we are losing our own talents (a casualty of a Broken Singapore Education System) but scholarships worth multimillion dollars are given out each year to attract oversea talents to study in Singapore.

Rachel Tan said...

The sketch is hilarious! I love it!

More seriously, it is a deep problem for MOE. Even the Ministers and civil servants who send their kids for tons of branded enrichment, I don't think they or their kids find it particularly enjoyable. Their kids are also part of the rat race, although yes, they can afford steriods. Notwithstanding, steriods while boosting performance, hace side effects.

Even if MOE improves the textbooks (which it should, really) and spends gazillions to reduce class sizes, how is it then going to solve the problem of secondary school placements? That to me is the greater problem - we seem to be stuck in a system that is determined to stream finely and rather deterministically at a tender age. We've made the stakes very high at a very young age.

Petunia Lee said...

Rachel - There's no such thing as being stuck in anything. If the MOE dares to look outside the box it has created itself and change the rules that trap its thinking within it, then a solution to the secondary school placement can be found. I can think of some solutions already though everyone will erode some other aspect of what is already inherent in MOE.

Certainly, a solution can't be found by trying to PRESERVE every other aspect of the system. The single change of doing away with the PSLE t-score is MEANT to have a domino effect. It will destroy other parts of this monstrous system that has grown up over time.

The MOE is just too chicken to do it... or else, they've just grown too attached to the monstrosity that has become their whole lives, and will brook no destruction to it.

Rachel Tan said...

You know Petunia, I am beginning to think that all reviews come to the same conclusion. Even before the work commences, whether it be for transport, healthcare financing,social policies, housing, education etc, the conclusions run along these lines - 'We have conducted a thorough review that has also included a scan of practices internationally. By and large fundamentally sound. The fundamentals (whether it is 3M policy for healthcare, corporatization of transport operators for public transport, car COE system, whatever) have worked well for Singapore, and are still sound. Our systems are comparatively better off than that of many other countries, aka by international standards.

There is however, scope to further improve and calibrate at the edges, to ensure (slightly more) inclusiveness (or whatever the mariginal benefit is).'

Very difficult to admit a need for an overhaul. Cognitive bias, group-think and whatever other psychological phenomenon is at play.

I also don't want to be an armchair critic - but I don't really know how to propose good solutions as I do think there is merit to having top schools in Singapore too.

For my kids, I'd better start thinking of cop out options as they may not make it here. Yikes.

Unknown said...

Dear Dr Lee
there have been many opinions, views, complaints...etc wrt our education system, especially of late. I have to admit it has somewhat becomes "irritating" to read because many just complain for the sake of complaining. I have come across a site recently and when a child has an opposing view, the blogger got defensive.
However, you are one of the very few who actually suggest something constructive. I think that is very enlightening. I certainly hope MOE can meet up with you to at least discuss what can be done to our education system, even though it's gonna take a while before we come to an "ideal" solution.

Unknown said...

ok, i just realised i didnt sign in with my name!!!! I am Sophia (unknown) :P