Thursday, August 22, 2013

New proposed banding for PSLE

The current buzz among parents is of course, the recent National Day Rally announcements to upcoming changes to the school system, not least of all, the PSLE. I was asked to be interviewed for the Channel 5 programme Voices Today on this topic. At first I declined (it's on live tv! What could be more terrifying!) but then Mediacorp kindly said I could do the interview via phone, so I did.

Since I was going to do the interview, I had to organise my thoughts on the matter, so I thought I might as well share them here as well.

Why is the proposed banding system for PSLE good?

Currently, the way PSLE t-score is computed and released to the students is very unhealthy because it ranks each student in a linear form from first to last. If some children get the same t-score, the t-score then can move down to several decimal places to decide who gets placed before another.This sends the message that a child who gets say, 241 is somehow better than the one who got 240. Even worse, the one scoring 260.25 is better than another one who got 260.21.

As the PM said, this sort of fine stratification is meaningless. Because of the way secondary school admissions is done based on this t-score ranking, the competition is stifling. You try to outdo as many in your cohort as possible. You have students and parents clamouring for every last point, because losing out one spot in the ranking can mean not getting into your school of choice. It’s not about doing well, it’s about doing better than others.

I wouldn’t say this is the only reason for the tuition culture but it certainly exacerbates it. You know how we sometimes find it baffling that very bright students go for tuition in all subjects. But if you are aiming for the top school, eg RI/RGS/HCI/NYGS, you basically need to score 260 and above to be assured of a place (or maybe even more than that). Now, nobody, no matter how well they've been doing, would be cocky enough to think that they can guarantee that score. You're talking about the top 5% of cohort or so. So even if you’ve been scoring 95, you still go for tuition to try and chase that 100. Every bit matters. Whereas now, if scoring above 245 will mean you have a shot at the top schools, then there is less pressure. An A* is an A*.

On MOE’s part, the current system means that they have to keep accelerating the standard of the papers every year, or at least come up with novel questions that only the super bright will be able to work out because there is a need to differentiate the kids. This is another meaningless exercise because the purpose of the PSLE is to test what the kids have learnt, not test what they don’t know.

How should the banding be done?

I’m not sure how MOE will do the banding. One way is to just allocate points to the grades like O levels eg. A* = 1 pt, A = 2 pts, B = 3 pts, etc. However, since there are only four subjects, you probably would end up with too broad categories, ie too many kids falling within the same category of points.

To me, a fairer way is to keep the t-score formulation but release them in bands instead of absolute numbers. Eg. 245 and above (which I estimate to be about the top 15% of cohort) can be in one band. This way, the student or the secondary school will not know whether the student scored 245 or 260. The message we’re sending is that all these students are capable academically, there is no need for a finer distinction at age 12.

I’ve always felt that it’s easy for the top secondary schools to talk about their straight A graduates when they take in the top 5% of students to begin with. Most of these students will do well even if they were placed in a non-branded neighbourhood school. The more important question is, how much value did that top school give to the student? This new banding will be a truer test. If these top schools can take in a more diverse range of students and still produce the same number of straight A graduates, then it’s proof that the school helped to achieve the result.

Will this really lessen the pressure and competition?

It won’t eliminate competition totally because PSLE is still considered a high-stakes exam and students will still try to get into higher bands. However, it will definitely lessen the stress somewhat. For the very bright students who are already doing very well, there will now not be a need to chase the last point. That time can now be spent on more meaningful activities, like sports, arts, CCA, community service, etc.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that competition in these other areas will now increase because for the top schools, there will probably be more applicants within the band than spaces, in which case I'm not sure what will be the next step. Look at CCAs and other criteria? Do a separate GAT test? So you'll find that instead of going for tuition, to ensure a space, parents will send their children for extra sports/music lessons etc. And you'll end up chasing something else, like kids trained to be national swimmers from kindergarten. But if I were to look for the silver lining, at least it's less narrowly focused on academics.

At the end of the day, the system can only do so much. There will always be kiasu parents.

Why don't we just get rid of banding altogether and have pass/fail like in the past?

I think we need to acknowledge that some kids are just more able academically than others. We can't dispute that a 260 scorer is better at studies than a 200 scorer. Putting them together in the same class will not be an efficient model because they learn differently. But what banding signals is that there is no need to differentiate between a 245 scorer and a 260 scorer. They probably can learn equally well together. It's about creating the most optimal setting for learning. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The blogger reflects

I started this blog in August 2008. That makes it exactly 5 years to date. During that time, I wrote about my kids growing up, education policies, my thoughts on learning and other miscellaneous stuff. I started out blogging everyday and then slowed down gradually, to once a week (every Monday) for the past 2 years or so. I've always said that I will continue blogging for as long as possible and I think I've finally reached the point where I can no longer do it on a regular basis.

In the blogging hemisphere, 5 years is a pretty long time. Many blogs die a natural death when the blogger runs out of things to say or simply runs out of steam. I've pushed on because I always had rather opinionated thoughts on something to do with education or the other. I was also determined to record all the fun stuff my kids did and said while they were growing up as sort of a memory bank.

It has been great but lately, I've realised that the inevitable has happened. I started struggling to find things to write about and time to write them. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) Both my kids are now in secondary school. Somehow, parents are most stressed out about education in Singapore at the primary and pre-primary school years. Issues tend to crop up then, less so in the later school years. Kids are also less cute (actions that might be adorable at age 9 become awfully annoying at age 12), hence, there are fewer interesting incidents to record.

2) I just got busier. My corporate writing business is growing. After 10 years, I now have four other writers on my team. Managing the projects and business aspects is in itself a full-time job, not to mention the actual writing that I do. As you also know, I recently tried my hand at book writing (out in October this year) and discovered that I really enjoy it. As a result, I'm going to pursue book writing more extensively which will take up even more time.

So I've come to the conclusion that something has to give and that something is blogging. To my fans, I want to assure you that I'm not shutting down this blog. It's not goodbye (which sounds so final).  It's just that I won't be blogging on such a regular basis. I've always believed that writing for its own sake is simply self-indulgent, so I'll only be posting when I have something to share, eg. updates on my upcoming books and views on education when they do come up.

At this juncture, I want to say that blogging has been a fantastic journey. Quite amazingly to me, this blog took on a life of its own. On several occasions, I was even recognised in public which is quite a foreign concept to me since I'm an introvert and generally shy away from the limelight.

The most recent encounter was a funny story. We were at the Marina Bay Sands Toast Box outlet having tea before going to watch Phantom of the Opera. This very nice lady came up to us and told me that she enjoys reading my blog. What she didn't know was that just before that, we had spotted Mr Brown aka Lee Kin Mun, also at Toast Box, and we were sneaking peaks at him. So when she approached us, we were a little taken aback. It's kinda like a voyeur suddenly realising he was being watched.

Anyway, I'm always happy when readers approach me (to the lady who came up to us, if you're reading this, thanks for making yourself known!) It's lovely to meet my readers in person. It's certainly much better than being silently observed, which is kinda stalker-ish and creeps me out a little.  So if you spot me, please do say hi! (unless you hate my writing, in which case, maybe no need lah, haha).    

A little marketing spiel: If you have enjoyed my writing, I hope you will continue to support me in my upcoming book (and maybe books). It's a new phase of my writing career/passion and I'm trying to see if I can make it work. Perhaps it's career suicide as there's definitely more money in corporate writing than book writing, but hey, I'm an optimist!

Meanwhile, I want to say, very sincerely, thanks for reading all my thoughts, opinions and ramblings all these years. At the risk of sounding totally cliche, the encouragement from my readers is truly what has kept this blog going for so long.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Gen Y black sheep

Of late, there has been a proliferation of "how-to" articles in online media, on issues ranging from parenting to work. There's nothing wrong with that, except I've noticed, some of the writers are awfully young, not even 30 years old. Yet the articles read with an authoritative swagger, full of confidence.

That annoys me somewhat. I don't get how someone who has barely tasted life can presume to tell others how to live theirs. Worse still, I've noticed that some of them who are giving parenting advice aren't even parents! It's like someone who has never cooked, writing a recipe book and justifying his expertise as "having eaten at lots of restaurants and spoken to many chefs".

I'm amazed at such unbridled arrogance. Where is the humility?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not ageist. I've met impressive young people with more wisdom than some elderly folks. It's not about "putting young people in their place". However, if you're young and you want to try and tell others what to do, you better be damn saat. Make sure you have the goods to back it up. But more often than not, I've found the online articles to be chockful of cliches and sweeping statements. They read like a hodgepodge of truisms complied from the internet and self-help books, without depth, originality or any real thought.

The narcissistic and entitlement mentality of the Gen Y and Millennials is not a new issue, long debated by the media.  The Daily Mail published a piece on how the Gen Y is not interested in hard work. Time Magazine wrote an article calling the Millenials the "Me Me Me Generation". Even I wrote a post sometime back about how the ego of the Gen Y is not backed by substance. Sometimes, I feel a little sorry for the Millennials - as a group, they have a reputation for being whiny brats and I know that's a stereotype.  However, when are are so many black sheep, it's easy to make generalisations of the group as a whole. generation complains about the one before. Maybe it's all our fault. We are the ones who keep telling the Gen Y how brilliant they are, how they're our future. In Singapore, we tell the kids who do well in school that they're our brightest and our best. We continue telling them this right up to university. Is it any surprise therefore they emerge with such a mindset that they are the saviours of society?

In my previous workplace, my boss tried to point out to her newly hired fresh-from-school executive that the tone in her email was too curt and unsuitable. To which the executive defiantly replied, "But I have a Masters in English." 

They just don't get it.

It depresses me that we are churning out the so-called future brains who think they have all the answers and who are so incredibly unopen to the idea that they might have something to learn. To them I say, life is a continuous process of discovery and through this, we learn not just about others but about ourselves.  Go out and do the leg work. Earn your stripes, take a few knocks, eat some humble pie, then consider whether you really have what it takes. In other words, learn more about life first before you presume to tell others how to live.

I quote my friend, Gerard, who wrote this to universities:  
"Yes, your under-graduates are smart kids. They probably know a lot about something or other. But please do not lead them on to think without reservation that the world is their oyster. Expect them to taste some cockles first."

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