Monday, October 29, 2012

Making the reluctant case for tuition

Lesley-Anne got back her year-end exam results last week and overall, we're pretty pleased with it.  Except for Higher Chinese where she scored a B4, she received an A grade for everything else. As we all know, it's not always the case that hard work will translate into good results but this time, it really paid off for her and we're very grateful for it.

The subject we were most pleasantly surprised by though, was maths. As I'd previously blogged, Lesley-Anne had been struggling with maths this year, earning herself a C5 in E Maths and a dubious F9 in A Maths in her mid-year exams. We got her a math tutor and even though we expected to see improvement, we weren't predicting any miracles.

The results turned out to be pretty drastic. For the CA2, barely 3 months after tuition commenced, Lesley-Anne's A Maths grade jumped from F9 to C5.  For this end of year exam, she scored an A1 for E Maths and an A2 for A Maths, just one mark shy of an A1.   

To tell you the truth, I'm pretty torn by this turn of events. On one hand, of course I'm delighted by the results. On the other hand, I'm actually feeling a little perturbed. Why?  Because the results show that contrary to what her F9 grade indicated, Lesley-Anne has the capacity to learn maths. Just not from her school teacher.

This bugs me.  In my opinion, a student should be able to learn at least the rudiments of any given subject from school with the prerequisite hard work, unless he really has zero aptitude for it. I've never been a big proponent of tuition unless the child truly needs help.  However, from this experience, I found that in just 6 months, a once-a-week, two-hour tuition session made all the difference.  I can only conclude that it's not the amount of effort or the hours spent learning maths, it's the teaching method.

I'm pretty sure that Lesley-Anne would not have gotten these results if she had continued to try and learn maths purely from school. For some reason, she can't understand the way her teacher explains concepts and maths remedial didn't help since he would repeat the topics in the same way. Maybe he thought that her poor results were because she wasn't working hard enough or wasn't paying attention.

I totally get that it's more difficult to teach a classroom of kids than tutor one student but Lesley-Anne was not even remotely passing A Maths, which tells me she hadn't even grasped the basic concepts.

If it's true that our children sometimes don't do well in school because they can't understand the teachers, then this is troubling. How can our education system wean kids off tuition if it is more effective than school?  What about kids who can't afford tuition?  There is also the question of how many kids think they are stupid or do not have the aptitude to grasp a subject when maybe it's just the way it is taught that's not effective.

These are difficult issues that have always been a challenge - finding good teachers, equipping them with the right tools, making sure they have enough time and resources to do their job well, etc. Nevertheless, they need to be addressed if MOE wants to convince parents that "every school is a good school".

For now, I'll just have to be resigned to the fact Lesley-Anne's maths education is not from school but an external source.  It's not ideal but at least it's effective.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Basic grammar rules

Throughout primary school, Andre had trouble with grammar rules regarding singular/plural and past/present. He could never seem to remember when to use what and often relied on what he felt "sounded right" (which of course, was frequently wrong!)

For some reason, even though we're an English-speaking family, he could never quite get a handle on grammar. A teacher friend of mine suggested that I compile a list of rules for Andre.  I attempted it and found that it helped tremendously. Somehow by organising the rules for him in a structured format, they didn't seem so arbitrary to him and became much easier to remember. The list also acts as a convenient reference list.

So for parents out there with kids like Andre, I thought I'd share my list. Do note this is not exhaustive but it covers most of the major ones.

Grammar Rules

1.       Is it singular or plural? (Look at the front noun).  Is it past or present? 
a.     The butcher sells meat at the market everyday.
b.     John cleaned his shoes yesterday.

2.       These are all singular:
a.     None of the girls is coming.
b.     Each of the boys has a pen.
c.     Everyone is coming to the party.
d.     Every artist loves to paint.
e.     Anybody is allowed to participate.
f.      Somebody is coming.
g.     Something is missing.
h.     Neither of the girls likes to travel
i.       Either one of them is coming.
j.       Uncountable nouns:  Water leaks from the pipe.

3.       These are all plural:
a.      All the boys have pencils.
b.      Both of them love ice cream.
c.      The pen and book belong to Ali.
d.      A few marbles were rolling on the floor.
e.      Many people visit the zoo.
f.       Most children dislike vegetables.

4.       Singular or plural – for these, look at the front:
a.      John as well as the girls loves to go to the beach.
b.      The girls except Mary like to eat fried chicken.
c.      All the trees but the one with fruit are to be chopped down.
d.      Susan, together with her friends, is playing at the playground.
e.      These books, with the magazine, belong to Jasmine.
f.       The carpet, like the curtains, brightens up the room.
g.      Collective nouns: A group of boys is coming this way.

5.       Singular or plural – for these, look at the back:
a.       Either the eraser or the pencils are missing.
b.      Neither the bags nor the box is heavy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Burn, baby, burn

This is PSLE marking week and I'm praying that the markers will be able to make sense of Andre's scripts.

Preparing Andre for composition was especially nerve-wrecking. Despite my pleas, he has a tendency to write grandiose plots featuring himself as the hero. When I told him it wasn't realistic to write about how he jumped on and single-handedly subdued a burglar, he asked earnestly, "Can I say that I tripped him up and he turned a 360 degree somersault?" 

Please, God, let the marker of his PSLE composition have a sense of humour. And preferably a few young sons.

What I'm very grateful for is that PSLE preparation has not affected Andre's self-esteem. When he is unable to make sense of a question, he's likely to conclude that there's something wrong with the question, not his intellect. For instance, there was a science question which asked, "what could be a reason why the graph shows no difference in the level of carbon dioxide even when the number of plants increased?" He answered, "the graph is wrong."

Lesley-Anne is also undergoing her end of year exams but I haven't been stressing out over it as I can trust her to do her own revisions. Like I always say, God is fair. When you have a kid who's relatively low maintenance, you can be sure to have another that will require double the effort.

Last week, we got down to clearing the p6 textbooks and PSLE assessment books. Andre declared rather savagely, "BURN THEM!"  Isn't it sad that the PSLE is such an unsavoury experience that most kids want to eliminate every sign of it when they're done? After the English paper, Andre told me, "it's raining sheep and goats!" When I looked at him puzzled, he explained, "English exam over. I've thrown all the English out of my head."

Being environmentally conscious, we didn't burn the books.  We sorted the books into two piles - textbooks and uncompleted assessment books to be given away, all others to be dumped in the recycling bin.

This is just a fraction of the school exam papers Andre has plowed through. So much paper! I really believe if the PSLE is scrapped, we can save an entire rainforest.

I also find it hilarious that Lesley-Anne was the one helping to sort the books while the owner of the books (and the resident bum) took a nap.

We ended up with four humungous bags of books to be reused. I feel sorry for the recipients already.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Post-PSLE euphoria and a double celebration

The last PSLE paper for Andre was science on Tuesday and the best way I can describe how Andre felt was when Frodo had finally thrown the ring into the Fire of Mount Doom and declared, "It is done!" 

It is done indeed. As for me, I had visions of George Michael belting out "Freedom!" in my head.

As it so happens, Tuesday was also Andre's birthday so it was perfect timing for a double celebration. Lesley-Anne was off from school as it was an elearning day for her, so we brought the whole family to Hard Rock Cafe for Andre's birthday lunch. 

Hard Rock Cafe is a perennial favourite for us and their weekday set lunch really can't be beat in terms of value and taste.  For $15 nett, you get a soup or salad, an entree, a dessert and free-flow iced lemon tea.

Andre chose the ribs for the entree - sizeable portion.

The dessert was the signature Hard Rock brownie with ice cream.  Words cannot describe how much we ♥ the Hard Rock brownie.

When we told the staff that it was Andre's birthday, in line with Hard Rock tradition, they sang him the birthday song, presented him with a complimentary sundae and even gave us a Polaroid of him to mark the occasion.  Awesome!

When we got home, he opened his presents and you could just see the unbridled joy bubbling over. Clearly, it's not really about the gifts, it's about having overcome a major ordeal.

This was Andre before the PSLE - doom and gloom.

And this is Andre after.

He's now vehemently opposed to any activity that requires "thinking", as he calls it. So for the past week, he has been binging on a diet of computers games, tv and aimless lounging. I suspect he will OD on sloth pretty soon and I should put a stop to it before his brain cells atrophy from disuse but for now, I'm letting him be.  He has worked hard and he deserves his chillaxin' time.

Many birthday blessing to you, my sweet char siew pau ♥ ♥ ♥

Monday, October 1, 2012

Piecing together the PSLE puzzle

There has been a lot of debate over the PSLE lately and people were wondering if this sacred cow would finally be slaughtered, until PM came out and put an end to that speculation. He said that instead, MOE will look at ways to reduce the pressure on this one single exam.

I've long been meaning to write a piece on the PSLE and this is as good a time as any.

The dastardly bell curve

To me, the main reason why PSLE is so stressful is the bell curve. There's a lot of misconception and confusion as to how the PSLE t-score is calculated so I'll try to simplify it here.

Each subject - English, Chinese, Maths and Science - is weighted equally at 100.  Your t-score, however, is calculated on a bell curve.  What this means is that your t-score for each subject is based on your relative score to the cohort and if you are right smack in the middle (exactly average), you will get a t-score of 50 points for that subject.

For example, if for that year's Science paper, the cohort's average was 75/100 and you score exactly 75/100, you will earn 50 points.  If you perform better than or worse than 75/100, you will score more than or less than 50 points respectively.  How much more or less depends on the standard deviation which reflects the spread of marks across the cohort.

If you want a more detailed explanation on how t-score is calculated, here's quite a good one.

What this means is that if your child is Joe Average and he scores 50 points for every subject, he will get a total t-score of 200.  Which doesn't sound like much to most parents, I know.  They don't realise that by scoring more than 200, their child is already above average. That's why I feel that PSLE is harder than many parents think. We hear of the 260 scorers so often that we don't realise these are by far a small minority and we start imposing unrealistic expectations on our own kids.

Using t-score is a fairer form of assessment than using raw scores because it takes into account variables like difficulty of the papers. However, adopting the bell curve gives rise to very undesirable traits.  It's as ruthless as Jack Welch's business approach to GE - rank every employee and every year, get rid of the ones at the bottom. It's based on the principle that in any sample population, there will always be someone under performing.

I disagree with it in the business context and I find it detrimental in the school context. Ranking fosters competition and discourages collaboration because it becomes a race where it's about outrunning your rivals rather than performing to the best of your ability.  I'd rather score an A and have my schoolmates score Bs than score an A* along with everyone else. This is what we want to teach 12-year-olds? That I'm a champ if I pass and my neighbour fails? Talk about screwing teamwork and cameraderie.

We are encouraging kiasuism by creating scarcity, explained very well here by an economist blogger.

Even putting aside the ugly competitiveness, the bell curve has severe limitations. Anecdotally, we know that kids are getting "smarter" in the sense that parents are getting more involved and investing more resources into their kids' education. Kids are studying harder, always looking to beat the exam system. By this logic, as a general population, our kids should actually be learning more in this generation than the last. I'm pretty confident the average student today will outperform the average student 20 years ago.

The bell curve does not reflect this as it merely imposes the same distribution on every population. In other words, I suspect that cohorts have been improving as a whole over time but we will never know for sure as the bell curve cannot measure between cohorts.

Why is this important? Simply because the PSLE t-score then is NOT indicative of real ability, only relative ability. Yet the cut-off point for the Express Stream, has remained at 188 for a long time now (I don't have the information for when this score was introduced). This is an arbitrary figure at best - a child who scores below 188 today may be more suited for the Express Stream than one who scored below 188 ten years ago. If our education system is as effective as we like to claim, should we not make room for the possibility that more kids are learning at an acceptable level?

In an environment where kids tend to internalise the t-score as a measure of his or her ability, the bell curve generates a lot of anxiety and can fuel low self-esteem.  All this from a mechanism which, when you break it down, exists primarily to issue you with a queue number to choose your secondary school.

Call for more transparency

The PSLE maths papers were on Friday and Andre came home looking a little deflated, saying the Paper 2 was quite tough. When I say a paper is tough, I mean it is of a similar level of difficulty to those of certain branded schools known for their difficult papers. I want to qualify this because I personally get miffed when I hear that some kids come out of a challenging exam declaring that it was "so easy". It demoralises other kids who may have struggled (or maybe that's their intent) and increases the anxiety of parents. Defining something as hard or easy based on whether you personally can do it is extremely narcissistic. Somebody should tell these folks that standards do not begin and end with them.   

This brings me to my other point that if MOE wants to make the PSLE less stressful, they should start making it more transparent. I find that much of the PSLE is shrouded in mystery, like it's some major national secret. The uncertainty contributes exponentially to the stress because parents don't know what to expect.

Maths has always been one of those subjects where parents fear a suddenly difficult paper. I believe this is the reason why the maths standards have accelerated so much over the years. In an effort to beat the PSLE, schools have been introducing more and more non-standard questions, some of which are simply beyond the conceptual level of many 12-year-olds.

The acceleration is not without cause. In 2009 (Lesley-Anne's PSLE year), the maths paper was unexpectedly difficult, leading to much hue and cry. I suspect it's because 2009 was the first year of the new maths exam format - 2 papers and calculators allowed for Paper 2 and MOE didn't calibrate the difficulty appropriately. 

If MOE had admitted this, I would have accepted it as teething problems. Instead, MOE chose to dish out the standard response to protesting parents, along the lines of "the standard of the paper was equivalent to that of other years'. Parents are just being kancheong because they don't see the whole picture." (Paraphrasing, of course). In other words, we're myopic. And over-reacting.

Usually following such complaints, when the results are released, mainstream media would inevitably report that the complaining parent's kid got A* in maths afterall, making the parent look foolish. I used to think the same way - wah so kiasu. Still A* what, why so kancheong.

It was only after Lesley-Anne's PSLE that it dawned on me what a sham it was. Here's why: in all the practice papers that Lesley-Anne did for maths that year, she NEVER scored more than 90 (which is the stated absolute mark for an A*). In fact, for some of the top school papers, she scored in the range of 70s.

She came home from the PSLE maths exam crying because she said it was MORE difficult than the top school papers. In fact, she left three 4-mark questions blank. You do the math. Even discounting the other mistakes she would most certainly have made, there was no way she could have scored more than 90.  Yet, here's the bombshell - she scored an A*.

Impossible? Hers was not the only case. I know many of her schoolmates experienced the same situation. I think when faced with this, parents are so delighted by the A* they prefer not to question the inconsistency.

There's only one probable explanation for this - that besides moderating the t-score, MOE also moderates the grades. It was like a light bulb went off in my head and set my thinking on a whole new trajectory.  In other words, the cut off score for an A* can vary each year, depending on how well the cohort performs. It's just a matter of deciding what percentage of kids get an A*.

By moderating grades, MOE is effectively hiding your true score and covering their bases. They have always claimed that papers are of an equal standard each year by saying that the number of A/A* achieved remains constant.  But if you control the number of A/A* to begin with, well, then the argument is circular and invalid.

There is no way of proving that I'm right and as far as I'm aware, MOE's official statement is that an A* is 91 and above. But I know that as a whole, parents are not dumb. If many kids across the island reportedly come out of an exam crying, saying an exam was difficult, it is unlikely to be a coincidence and shouldn't be dismissed so patronisingly. If MOE wants to insist that they are right, then I say, prove it by releasing the raw scores for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 maths papers. I would love to know what percentage of kids actually scored less than 50/100 and more than 90/100 as well as the cohort average for the maths exam in 2009. Versus 2008 and 2010.

Do you know that you cannot find a complete PSLE paper anywhere? When you buy the book of past PSLE papers, the questions are strangely broken up by topics, not by year. In fact when you do the questions, you don't know what year each question was from. Again, what's the big secret? What's the harm in letting kids practise the full papers by year? The only reason I can think of is so that people can't gauge and dispute the difficulty of each year's paper.

The uncertainty means there's confusion all around. After the 2009 PSLE maths fiasco, parents went into panic mode. Then the 2010 and 2011 math papers were supposedly easy.  Parents and teachers didn't know what to expect. Do you just learn what you need to? Or prepare for a really tough paper?  As it turns out, this year's was more difficult. I don't think it's anything like 2009's but still, the inconsistency is unsettling.

Educate with continuity in mind

The PSLE is supposed to be a gauge of standards, to prepare you for secondary school. However, I find a huge disconnect between what is taught in primary and secondary school.  For example, in maths, primary school stresses the model method and systematically dissuades the use of algebra. The day you leave primary school, you don't touch models. Ever. Instead, secondary school maths uses, guess what? Algebra.

In primary school composition, you write boring, mundane stories, mostly about accidents, while peppered with lots of fancy, multi-syllabic words. In secondary school, accidents magically become non-existent and you suddenly have to write about things like the ills of computer games.

Many kids who are weak in English and had their t-scores pulled up primarily because of good marks in Chinese, find themselves lost in secondary school because Chinese is only one subject, whereas you need a strong grasp of English to do well in many subjects, especially the humanities.  But of course we all know what happened when MOE tried to reduce the weightage for Chinese at PSLE a couple of years ago.

It's no wonder that many kids who score well for PSLE end up struggling in secondary school. I find it frustrating that we spend so much time preparing our kids for the PSLE which is in essence, merely a placement test. And as it turns out, it's not even a very good placement test.

Now that the authorities have said PSLE is here to stay, I think MOE needs to take a long, hard look at correcting its flaws. By tomorrow, my kids would be done with this trial (hooray!) but for the sake of other kids who have yet to face this challenge, I sincerely hope there is change for the better.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...