Sunday, September 23, 2012

Primary Colours Part 3 : 49 Shades of Grey

A number of people who commented on my post on PSLE (Primary Colours 2: The PSLE Dilemma) appear to have mis-read it. They said I wanted to scrap the PSLE. Let me break down what I actually said:
(a) It matters a great deal which secondary school a child goes to;
(b) The PSLE determines which secondary school a child goes to;
(c) PSLE has therefore become more a competition, forcing parents to take measures which (they think) will help their child outscore their peers. This is at the expense of a proper childhood and possibly even a good education;
(d) I am in favour of scrapping PSLE PROVIDED there is a better way to determine secondary school placement;
(e) I considered several alternatives, and ultimately advocated a system which offers parents more choices. This includes having non-government primary schools, affiliated primary and secondary schools and a common exam for entry to "better" schools.
I am glad that my post has generated some debate. I think it is good that we have a full and frank conversation about such serious issues. What is clear is that very few like the current system. But it is equally telling that no particular solution has garnered any general support or consensus.
One alternative was proposed by the Managing Editor of ST, Mr Han Fook Kwang. Writing in today's Sunday Times, Mr Han said he was against scrapping PSLE, and instead suggested sending better teachers to under- performing schools. His intention is clearly noble. But the necessary consequence is that we will also send "less good" teachers to better performing schools.
The problem with this and other similar suggestions is that it mis-states the Government's role in education. When we say that education is the great leveller in society, we mean that it should enable every child to reach his potential and not be deprived of opportunities because of his background or circumstances. It does NOT mean that we should cause all children to come to the same level by lifting up the lower performers and dragging down the better ones.
Mr Han also said that he is not in favour of scrapping the PSLE because "it represents, for the families in the heartlands, that one chance of a lifetime for their children to have a shot at academic stardom and that coveted place in a top secondary school". This underscores the problem with the arguments in favour of keeping the current system. First, no one is suggesting that any new system should take away the opportunity to advance. On the contrary, the fear is that the current system is weighed against those who are less well off, because they cannot afford (good) tuition and therefore cannot compete. Second, and more importantly, the fact that PSLE is seen as a "once in a lifetime" chance IS the problem. Children should not have their futures determined by a single exam when they are only 12years old. That particularly prejudices children who are less well off who, because if they fall behind early in the race, they have a more difficult route to attaining tertiary education.
But Mr Han does raise one more "myth" which the MOE should address: do better teachers end up in better schools? Schools with better resources will be able to offer better terms, and therefore have their pick of teachers. That is one reason for the intense competition to get into them. While I am not in favour of a policy which sends better teachers to lower performing schools, I am equally against the reverse happening, by design or otherwise.
It would therefore be good if the MOE could inform the public how it ensures a fair distribution of teaching talent and resources. And I hope the answer will not be that every teacher is a good teacher.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Primary Colours Part 2: The PSLE Dilemma

There is an old joke about two hunters who are charged at by a bear. One reacts by putting on his running shoes. "What are you doing?" asks the other. "You'll never out-run a bear!" The other responds: "I know. I just need to out- run you."

That, I think, describes how most feel about PSLE - the concern is less about whether our children are receiving a good education, but more about whether they will out-do other kids. The reaction of parents to the recent announcement on changes to the PSLE English syllabus bears this out. The ST reported one parent welcoming the change because it will give her daughter "a competitive advantage", while another was concerned that his son "will lose out". The issue was not about whether the changes would give a better grounding in English - it was all about how their child’s PSLE scores will be affected relative to others’.

MOE puts in considerable effort and resources to ensure that every school in Singapore is able to give its students a good education. And its recent move to remove banding, de-emphasise exams and promote non-academic aspects of a child’s development is laudable. However, many believe that nothing will change until we change PSLE.

But PSLE by itself is not the real issue. It is irrelevant to career choices, job prospects or polytechnic/university admissions. It serves no purpose other than to determine which secondary school you go to. But the secondary school you go to matters a great deal. It is not just about whether the school has good facilities or teachers. Other factors are important as well. These include peer influence, tradition and environmental factors. Going to a good school may not guarantee success, but it can make a difference for the child to be in a setting where fellow students are motivated and have the drive to excel.

The reality therefore is that so long as a child's PSLE scores determines which secondary school he goes to, and so long as places in “better” schools are limited, two things are inevitable - (1) there will be competition - and therefore stress – to get into those schools (2) parents will do what they can to help their kids out-score their peers. To most, that means tuition.

Why do parents do this? Because we all want the same things for our children - to succeed in life and to be happy. We do not consider these to be mutually exclusive pursuits. Indeed, we believe that the more successful our child, the more likely he will be happy. But we have no crystal ball or magic wand, and cannot know for sure what we should or should not do. All we can do is to give our child opportunities. If that means sending him to a “better” school, we will aim for that. And if that entails sending him to tuition (or abacus or Kumon, etc), we will do it. If we have to take no pay leave six months before exams, so be it. If it means cooking special food or giving herbal concoctions to boost energy, bring out the recipe book. What makes parents most insecure is the thought of their child not succeeding because of something they did not do. So, some of us will end up over-doing and over-compensating. Nothing the MOE does or says will change that.

I am all for slaying the PSLE sacred cow. But we need to first agree on an alternative way of deciding who goes to which secondary school, other than by way of a common exam. What are the options?

Option 1: Leave it entirely to the discretion of the secondary school principals? I can already hear complaints of unfair or preferential treatment, based on wealth or connections.

Option 2: Making all secondary schools identical to remove any perception of privilege or superiority? Or assigning places by ballot? Most will object to this and it does not make sense.

Option 3: Change the testing at PSLE such that it more accurately measures talent, instead of hard work? But that is easier said than done, the parents’ insecurities will remain and tuition centres will still say they can make a difference. More importantly, why down play hard work? It is a virtue worth inculcating and rewarding. It is something we have to do all our lives. As a lawyer, I have found that there is no substitute for preparation – and that involves spending hours poring over documents, making sure you know your facts and the law, and being able to answer questions the Court throws at you. Exams are no different.

Option 4: Give parents the choice to opt out of the PSLE altogether? We can have more "through-train" schools, where students gain entry to affiliated secondary schools without a common exam. Those who wish to compete for a place in the “better” secondary schools can sit for the PSLE. We could also allow private, independent primary schools to be set up, with graduates eligible to go to private or international secondary schools. But there will be no MOE funding and therefore higher fees, and this option may not be available to all.

So, different solutions lend themselves to different issues. I would prefer a system that gives parents more choices. We are not likely to find absolute consensus on any system as we have different circumstances, different aspirations and different expectations of Government. More importantly, the role of education today must be to prepare the child for opportunities (and challenges) the world, and not just Singapore, will offer. It is unrealistic to expect that a single, universal model can achieve this. We need to move away from a one-size fits all model, and let parents decide the trade-offs they want to make for their children.

The Government should think about loosening its grip on education, so that Singaporeans can choose for themselves what they want for their own children. Perhaps, this will be explored in our National Conversation.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Primary Colours – Dispelling Myths About Primary Education

While the system of pre-school education featured heavily at the National Day Rally, the message which resonated most was a simple one: PM's urging that pre-school should be more about developing social skills and that kids should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Every parent I know wants that.

But the tail that wags the dog is primary school. We regard pre-school as a preparatory step to primary school. Mandating that pre-schools focus on soft skills may make more parents turn to private centres to coach their kids on the hard skills they think are necessary for primary school. That would make the problem worse.

I think there is a more fundamental question of what we want our primary school system to be, and whether we should allow more choices in the system. Minister Heng spoke of two different parents: one did not want to his child to have homework during the holidays, while the other questioned why his child was not given any. Perhaps the solution is for the two children to swap schools – in other words, allow parents to choose the kind of education which best suits their child. When government runs schools, it tends to result in a one-size-fits-all approach. This is not a criticism – it is a natural consequence of efficiency and fair distribution.

But so long as we maintain the current system, MOE can and should deal with parents’ concerns about Primary One education. They should start by addressing directly and clearly a number of questions which keep surfacing.
Myth or Fact 1: It is not clear what literacy and numeracy skills children are expected to have when entering Primary One.

Parents I have spoken to are not clear about what level of skills their child should have when they start Primary One. The consequence is clear: if parents do not know, they will over-prepare their child. The MOE should simply make this clear, and remove the anxiety.

Myth or Fact 2: Teachers do not teach the curriculum if the majority of the class already knows their stuff.

There is much anecdotal evidence that this happens. If it is true, MOE should put a stop to it. It only rewards over-preparation and forces others to over-prepare as well. That just means more homework and tuition. If teachers want to teach beyond the curriculum, fine, but it should not be at the expense of their responsibility to ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum. If parents want their child to get ahead, that’s their prerogative, but they must accept that their child may get bored having to do the same thing twice.

Myth or Fact 3: Teachers encourage parents to send kids who are behind for tuition.

Again, one hears of this happening. It would be particularly egregious if the child is considered “behind” simply because his classmates are ahead of the curriculum and the teacher is therefore not prepared to teach it.

More fundamentally, it should be the obligation of the school to help those who are behind or have difficulty coping. The problem should not be out-sourced to a tuition centre. With primary schools going full day, there is more scope to offer weaker students extra lessons.

Myth or Fact 4: Pupils are “streamed” according to abilities in Primary One and the better teachers are assigned to the “better” classes

If this is true, MOE should put a stop to it. This only encourages parents to over-prepare their child to get into the "better" classes. Putting all the “better” students in the same class also lends to the impression that children will not be taught equally. Teachers should be assigned randomly. Also, if teachers ensure that all their students are taught the curriculum, there will be no need for such “streaming”. Besides, if you want pre-school to be more about social skills and play, it makes no sense to group kids according to their literacy and numeracy skills the minute they enter Primary schools. The only assessment the school should be concerned with is to identify the kids who have not achieved the minimum skills (Myth 1) and to give them extra attention (Myth 3). Given that more than 99% of our children go to pre-school, this will likely be a small group in each school.

Even with these changes, will some parents still send their kids for tuition? Of course they will. Parents will do what they believe will give their kids an advantage. That has been, and will always be, the case. And we should not stop that - it is their prerogative how they wish to raise their children. But what we can and should do is to address features in our system which compel such conduct.

Some have said that any changes at pre-school or lower primary level will have little or no effect unless we also deal with GEP and PSLE. I do not think that is necessarily true, although we do need to address some issues with them as well. I will share my thoughts in a later post.