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Monday, April 25, 2016

Natural Selection Into Secondary

After the MOE announced that they would dismantle the PSLE t-score, parents started clamouring for specific and unambiguous directions/instructions on exactly HOW children would be selected into secondary schools.

The MOE then made a humble and almost embarrassed admission that they didn't quite know. Yet.

I say Kudos to MOE. You have NOTHING to be embarrassed about. This said, I must say that MOE's recent humility is a refreshing change from the MOE of the past, who purported to be world class and know-it-all.

Please... please... please... forever don't know. The moment you devise a quantifiable and step-by-step system with clear and unambiguous direction, parents will strategise to game it. However, if your selection system has in-built randomness, there will be no way to game it.

So many Mommies complained to me: "How are they going to quantify character? How are they going to quantify holistic development? How are they going to be fair? How are they going to be objective?"

These questions left me perplexed. How do companies select staff? Do we have an employment t-score? I was perplexed at parents' inability to imagine any other selection system than the t-score when you don't even have to imagine.

Companies have different cultures and niches. Necessarily, they look for person-organisation fit. This means that each company would choose different profiles of people. They have different selection criteria. There is no consensus among companies on who is best because the best is dependent on context.

As such, The Daughter, with her 8 A level distinctions, Dean's list and whatever else she has in her portfolio... didn't make it through to work at GrabTaxi nor Uber. When she interviewed at Accenture, she was put through a Group Interaction interview, presumably because teamwork is important and she needed to clear a peer interview.  Deloitte has a one day assessment centre selection at the final round of the selection process.

Mommies who were Senior Execs all described the qualities they used to look for in selecting staff and it varied across industry and company needs and cultures.

This is roughly how the Ivy League universities pick candidates too.

Horrors of all horrors! Universities like Harvard can even CHANGE their selection criteria over the years and they aren't obliged to tell you. You can guess but you won't know. And even if you guess accurately, the criteria are subject to change without warning as Harvard seeks to diversify its student mix in response to dynamic internal and external environmental changes. You cannot game a system that is designed to change without warning to re-calibrate to real-time situations and a dynamic world.

Such selection systems are powerful because they are not only holistic, they are adaptive. Contrast this with the uni-dimensional t-score selection system which is far from holistic and certainly NOT adaptive.

Our fascination with ultra-objectivity and ultra-quantifiability is impoverishing and non-adaptive. That is a bad thing for Singapore. Parents are screaming blue murder because they can no longer game the system. That is a good thing. No one should be allowed to game the system.

Nobody has the wisdom to play God by codifying the exact criteria for entrance into every school throughout the country. Besides, such codification, once done, locks the whole country in for years, even as internal and external conditions change. God created everything in nature to be adaptive... evolution, social systems, the human body, the human psychology. Let us not fight that by trying to hard to be Know-It-All and Say-It-All.

We don't expect MOE to be Know-It-All. Leave some things to natural selection by the schools. Just make sure that you do not secretly compute t-scores and disseminate to the schools. If so, we are back in Square 1.

Done this way, there would be further internal coherence within the MOE systems. Why so? MOE has touted niche schools and pushed forth differentiated schools for a while now. Imposing a single t-score selection on all schools runs counter to this differentiation strategy. Let the schools interview children to decide if there is a personality-character-academic-extracurricular fit and schools would naturally pick students who would fit best within their school culture and aims.

Clearly defined school cultures and clearly stated aims will also allow parents to pick schools.

For sure, the top schools will still admit perfect scores. Lots of perfect scores will end up in RI. Similarly, it is entirely possible that Harvard admits more than its fair share of valedictorians. However, not EVERY valedictorian gets into Harvard.  Similarly, RI has no space for all the 4As at PSLE. 

It will have to choose from amongst the 4As that apply and IF... IF... IF... RI decides to include, in its selection criteria values  (hypothetically speaking) such as...
- tenacity
- resilience
- a strong body
- kindness
- humility
- un esprit d'aventure
- determination to rise above poverty
... I reckon that a large proportion of the over-tuitioned 4As will not make it in. Then, the tuition industry will shrink and then the best ex-MOE teachers will have to go back to MOE for a job. Then, RI would really be a true top school. Right now, it isn't really a top school. It is merely a school with lots of GEP and kids with very high t-scores.

I look forward to a day when RI becomes a true top school again.


Joanne Tan said...

The ambiguity will likely lead to more (than before when there was a historical COP as a benchmark) parents giving branded schools a try and then scrambling to a 2nd, 3rd choice later on, by when they could be disadvantaged.

Until such time this new system blend all schools successfully ie eradicate the concept of "Branded schools" and truly achieve the infamous "Every school is a good school" cliche, these schools will still admit mostly 4As students.

The only difference is the COP becomes denominated in grades rather than score, that's all.

Petunia Lee said...

"These schools will still admit mostly 4As students"... this, I don't doubt. I don't think it is healthy to have a completely featureless system where schools are not allowed to differentiate.

Only thing though, there are a whole lot MORE 4A students than there are students scoring above 268. As such, the top students are likely to get dispersed more evenly throughout the top 15 schools. Right now, they are all concentrated into 4 top schools.

In time to come, President's Scholars and PSC Scholars would hail from the top 10 to 15 schools. This adds diversity to our top talent of the future.

And I like that you have picked out that the system will in time to come blend. I think it is too much to expect MOE to change itself and change the parent environment too. We can only hold MOE to its responsibility to lead the change. There will be some years of uncomfortable re-calibration and metamorphosis in much the same way where it is difficult for a lobster to shed new skin and for a while, its new shell is soft and vulnerable.

I just hope that people will give MOE time to change and refine. Nobody gets things perfect from Day 1. Those who do, are only doing what has been done before. If you go into new territory, you will fall flat and it would be forgiveable because at least, you have the courage to try and fall because the new direction is a sensible one.