Dear Mr Heng
The recent polls have triggered many dramatic changes, the biggest of which is PM’s consistent refrain for transformation.
In this spirit, I’m writing to you to ask whole-heartedly for a transformation of our education system. If not a complete transformation, at least a holistic review of some of the basic tenets by which education policies in this country are made.
As a parent with one child in secondary school and another in primary school with contrasting abilities, I have, over the years, become increasingly frustrated and disturbed by many areas of our education system which I feel are not edifying to the development of children. At the risk of sounding like one of those domineering, opinionated mothers, let me try to persuade you, from the point of view of a concerned parent, why a change is due.
Education is not a business
Many have felt that Singapore in the past few years has been run like a business and this mindset has filtered down to education. These days, teachers are ranked against each other measured by KPIs. If their students don't perform up to par, then they drop in ranking. I assume this affects their appraisal and promotion prospects. Principals are also under pressure to keep up in school rankings (and not just in academics), hence they push their teachers to achieve better results.
Here's what happens when schools are run like businesses. Teachers become workers assessed and ranked according to quantifiable output. The principal is like the CEO, answerable to a higher authority based on numbers. Students become products, they are valued only according to the quantifiable output they can contribute, everything else is peripheral or redundant. Everything is reduced to numbers.
Therein lies the problem. When you run a business, the focus has to be on results, preferably quantifiable results. Don't get me wrong, I think it's well and good to try and assess the effectiveness of a school. But instead of seeing how we can better assess the effectiveness of schools, we run the schools to make them easier to assess.
Education administrators love this because it's so neat, structured and orderly. But the problem is education is about moulding of individuals. And neither individuals nor learning is neat, structured or orderly. The process of education is not and should be like that of manufacturing, taking place in a factory.
A friend of mine who volunteered to lead a character module at her son’s school was taken aback when she was asked for KPIs. I have other friends who are teachers have expressed frustration at being assessed purely by how well their students score. If we take this route, there is no "business" value in helping a student overcome his learning disability or giving special attention to a child from a difficult family background because the outcome is not quantifiable. We're leaving it to the assumed social conscience of the teacher and the school to step forward in such instances. But realistically, ensuring ‘A’ students continue to get top grades will likely get priority because it directly impacts on the teacher's KPIs.
Obsession with results
The inevitable outcome of an education system that is run by KPIs is the obsession with results and by this, of course I mean quantifiable results. What happens then is the focus is shifted from the process of education to the end result of scoring, because that is what is measured in the end.
For example, I find that the way many subjects are taught in schools are based on the marking template, understandably because if the objective is to maximise scores, then you teach to fulfil this objective. I’m a corporate writer and one of my biggest pet peeves is the way composition writing is taught in primary schools.
Many teachers today are told to mark the language of a composition based on how many "good phrases" are used. In my son’s school, a commercial book of good phrases is part of the syllabus and the kids are told to learn these phrases, even for spelling. These phrases are often so bombastic and pretentious that nobody in real life would actually use them. Yet the students are taught them because “ticks” are given for each “good phrase” and added to their vocabulary score.
I remember during a parent-teacher conference, I raised my concerns to my son's English teacher. To my utter surprise, she agreed with me. She said that once the school started imposing the memorising of good phrases for composition, she ended up with 44 scripts of almost identical introductions (mostly about the "fiery sun in the sapphire sky"). Unfortunately, her hands were tied.
I know why this is imposed - it's to make marking simpler. This way, schools don't have to depend on the arbitrary standards of each marker and the marker just has to follow a matrix. It's certainly more orderly but don't mistake it for creativity. I don't know any other education system which designs its curriculum around the grading. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
To me, attempting to come up with a template for creativity is simply oxymoronic. Ironically, we’ve managed to suck the creativity out of creative writing.
This obsession with results extends outside of the classroom. In my daughter’s school, the performing arts groups are given funding according to how well they perform in the SYF. Likewise, bigger budgets are given to sports that bring in medals. The list goes on. What this breeds in the race for medals and results is that schools often prioritise these over values like effort, sportsmanship and character building.
Even otherwise worthwhile activities, such as CCAs and community service, have lost their noble intent somewhat, as many students now perform these duties clinically for the sake of window dressing their resume.
Valuing people based on academic results
As a direct outcome of a school system that emphasises scores above all else and uses these scores to dictate the child's educational path at a very early age, Singaporeans have become obsessed with chasing grades. While I don’t deny grades are important, for many, they have become life-centric, meaning kids spend every waking hour performing tasks that will help them better their score.
The mindless pursuit of academic achievement has become so over-arching that many parents are now sending their kids for what I call indiscriminate tuition – tuition in every single examinable subject whether or not the child actually needs it. My daughter is in an SBGE (School-Based Gifted Education) class and her classmates were either from the GEP in primary school or top scorers in the PSLE. So I was startled when she told me that most of her classmates have tuition in 3 or 4 subjects. Tuition has become a crutch - even if the kids are doing well on their own, parents fear the consequences of doing without it.
The backlash is that our children’s self-worth and perception have become intrinsically linked to their academic grades. Teachers, peers and possibly parents judge the value of students according to their academic ability. I know children whose self-esteem is low simply because they don’t do as well in school as their classmates. In the “branded” schools, it also breeds elitism because these students deem others less academically-inclined as somehow inferior. When my daughter attended her first day of school in sec 1, many of her new classmates, meeting her for the first time, didn’t ask “what’s your name?” but “what’s your t-score?”
This treatment of academic prowess as a “superior” skill can be seen throughout our system. Although we profess to embrace all talents, it’s often lip service. Prefects and student leaders are usually chosen first on their academic ability before their leadership skills. In many DSAs for sports, schools still ask for academic results before they will even entertain the child for a trial. The message we seem to be sending is: we'll look at your other talents IF you have the academic ability.
Putting standards above learning
In my son’s recent p5 mid-year exams, in one class, every single child failed the math paper. This is a common scenario among some of the popular schools. Obviously, it’s not because the students are intellectually deficient. It’s because the papers are often set at a level designed for only the top 25% of kids. In fact, one question required a method that had not yet been taught to the students. It’s a mockery of the “teach less learn more” motto – does it mean the teachers teach less but the kids somehow have to learn more on their own? No wonder tuition centres are flourishing!
I’m tired of hearing the age-old excuse from schools that this will spur the children to work harder. Incidentally, this is not supported by fact. I suspect it's an urban legend spread by schools who wish to justify their "high" standards. I meet many parents and students who are more demoralised than "spurred" by their consistently bad results.
What is the point of this? The age gap between my two children is only three years and yet I can see that what my younger child has to learn at his age is markedly more difficult than what his sister had to know.
Perhaps this constant accelerating of the educational syllabus is a knee jerk reaction to the influx of brilliant foreign students, but this is no justification. We need to recognise that these kids have completely different motivations. They are here purely to study, to carve a better life for themselves, much as our students work harder when they study overseas. Do we then use these as benchmarks to whip Singaporeans into shape?
No education system is a one size fits all but we need to consider the best interest of the majority of students. If half your students fail in an exam, it doesn’t reflect badly on the student – it reflects badly on the teaching. I find that in setting the curriculum and exam papers, there seems to be some semi-sadistic streak in MOE and schools, to trip kids up and make them feel stupid. It's as if someone is saying, "Aha! I managed to set a question that no one could answer!" There will always be a small percentage of brainiacs who can ace any exam, no matter how difficult. That is not a logical benchmark by which to design curriculum or exam papers.
Plea for a more meaningful system
In the course of my work, I had the opportunity to interview the Vice Dean, Education of Duke-NUS. It was, in my mind, one of the most inspiring interviews I’d ever conducted. In his words, “We don’t just want the straight ‘A’ student. Does having one less ‘A’ make you less of a person? We know Singaporeans are already great at memorising facts – we’re looking for passion, dedication and the ability to see a problem through different angles.”
I feel we could use more of that mindset here. Singaporean educators are often proud of our high standards but let's be honest, we're good at ticking off checklists, exams and competitions. We laugh at the laissez faire American system for its laxity but in truth, they have churned out more innovators and thinkers from their messy system than we have (even after adjusting for size and population).
I will be the first to admit to occasionally suffering pangs of anxiety when my child doesn't do well in an exam because it's hard to stand firm in the onslaught of a tsunami of kiasu-ism. But at the end of the day, I try to keep reminding myself his character and happiness matter more. I want a kinder system, one that encourages my child to explore the world around him, not closes it up. One that shows him the richness of issues and topics out there, not limits him to four subjects.
I want a system where I can encourage my child to enjoy music, art, sports for their own sake, and not with the pre-requisite that he does well academically. I want him to want to help others, and not because it counts towards community service hours in his report book. I want to groom a child with integrity and respect towards others, and I hope others can appreciate him for these values.
I am doing as much as I can in these areas but I cannot fight against the education system. I'm writing this in the hope that as you now helm the Education Ministry, you can make the transformation happen.
Thank you very much for your time.