Monday, January 25, 2016

When students in top schools don't make the grade

When the 'O' level results were released this year, there was some hoo-ha when the Middle Ground reported that only 1 out of 10 students in RI's pioneer 'O' level class scored well enough to make it to JC. Many people were in shock, including the students, it would seem - RI? How could this have happened?

My reaction is: this was no surprise at all.

I've always been baffled by the intrinsic belief of some parents that because a high percentage of top school students score well, you will automatically score well if you go to a top school. It doesn't work that way. That's like saying if you hang out with a whole bunch of rich people, you will also become rich. So much logic.

Whether you are likely to turn in good academic results depends on a few factors:

1) Your natural talent or aptitude, which is largely genetic
2) Your work ethic, ie how hard and how well you study
3) How much help you get, eg whether you have tuition, good teachers, father-mother help, etc.

Of course there are other factors like luck, performance during exams etc, but I won't get into those as I think they play a smaller part. In general, how well a student performs in school is largely dependent on those three factors. Students in the elite schools tend to have a good combination of all three. That's why they do well. It's that simple.

However, in every top school, you will have a handful of students who do not perform quite as well academically. The group who entered via sports or arts Direct School Admissions (DSAs), for instance. Many of these kids enter the school far below the cut-off-point (COP), sometimes 30 or 40 points below. While the PSLE t-score is not definitive, it does offer a pretty good indication of general ability. If a student is lacking in Factor 1) and his Factor 2) is compromised because he has to commit a lot of time to his CCA due to DSA, he is already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to performing academically. It's the brutal truth.

I don't know if all the kids who scored badly in the 'O' level class were from DSAs. There could also be students who entered RI due to very high PSLE scores but somehow along the way, slipped and were unable to catch up.

Being in a branded school doesn't automatically mean you get a leg up in grades. In fact, it's often the opposite. Based on my own experience with my two kids, branded schools actually teach less and test more. When they teach, they go very quickly and assume knowledge of basic concepts. Many teachers of branded schools are simply unaccustomed to dealing with less academically-inclined children and much less sympathetic to failing grades (when Lesley-Anne flunked sec 3 maths, her teacher just assumed she wasn't trying hard enough). If you struggle to understand the fundamentals, tuition is often the only recourse for these kids. In contrast, Andre's teachers in a neighbourhood school go through concepts more slowly and hold more extra classes for weaker students.

This whole saga with the 'O' level class at RI is due to the way the Integrated Programme (IP) has evolved. When IP was introduced some years ago, the assumption was that the top PSLE scorers would naturally be JC-bound, so the through-train system made sense - kids in schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH would bypass the 'O' levels and go straight to JC, saving them the hassle of preparing for another national exam. After all, these schools attract the top 5% of kids. Shouldn't be a problem, right?

Except there was a problem. Kids are human beings. They don't always perform according to statistical projections. Plus these schools took in some kids way below the COPs, as mentioned above. The result was that some kids in these schools just couldn't keep up, for whatever reason. The schools then faced a huge dilemma - what to do with these students? They couldn't in good conscience promote a student who failed practically every subject, let alone allow him or her to enter JC. So in the past, these kids would either be retained, transfer to an overseas school or transfer to a secondary school which offered 'O' levels.

The worst case scenarios were the sec 4 kids who couldn't make the grade - it was too late to transfer schools and study a completely different syllabus for the 'O' levels. What route could they take then? Poly? Drop out and take 'O' levels as a private candidate? Graduate with just a PSLE certificate? It was an untenable situation. I say this with first-hand knowledge because Lesley-Anne was from a branded secondary school and during her time, it was pure IP, with no 'O' level classes. There were students who couldn't make the grade and quietly transferred out to different schools, whichever would take them. At the sec 4 graduation ceremony, some students went up on stage to receive a fake scroll, bitterly knowing there was a chance they might not graduate. It's sobering and horrible and nobody talks about it.

So these top schools which previously didn't have 'O' level classes, came to realise that they were not doing right by these students. They had no choice but to open up 'O' level classes for the kids who really couldn't cope. It was with good intentions. However, it's laughable to call schools like RI "dual-track" schools because they're not. A dual-track school is one like ACSI, Victoria/Cedar or SJI where there are two distinct tracks from the start - IP and 'O' levels - and students can move from one track to another at sec 3, depending on their performance.  In these schools, teachers are trained and curriculum designed specifically for these two very different tracks and there is a sizeable student enrolment in both.

In schools like RI however, the 'O' level track is not a real option but a last resort for the students whom the teachers feel are not equipped to continue with the IP. In fact, many kids may be borderline cases but the schools often try to keep everyone in the IP (it's that or admit that the IP is a sham). The 'O' level class is a no-choice situation to at least try and give the failing students a decent qualification. That's why there were only 10 RI students in this class, out of a cohort of maybe 400 or so (I don't know the exact numbers).

In other words, the 10 RI students were already struggling academically. That's why they were in the 'O' level class. I also wonder how familiar the teachers were with the 'O' level syllabus as they were all trained for the IP curriculum. Was it any surprise then that the students didn't do well in the 'O' levels? It's not fair to compare their performance with the ACSI or SJI 'O' level cohort because the circumstances are completely different.

So what's the lesson in this whole saga? I loathe to add to the very judgmental "oh, RI is falling from their pedestal!" sentiment. I feel sorry for the students. They probably feel badly enough, first at being downgraded to the 'O' level class, then having to deal with the results. They don't need to be known as "the RI kids who failed".

For me, if there's anything to be learnt, it's this: don't get starry-eyed by the brand name of a school. Schools only share their glory-makers, their top-scorers, their Ivy-league goers. They never tell you about the ones who don't make it. And there are ALWAYS those who don't. Every cohort, every school, not just RI. People don't hear about them, except in whispers, because the parents and students are likely too ashamed to advertise their situation. And it suits all parties involved - the students, the parents and the school, never to speak of them. 

Getting into a school is the starting point, not the destination. Otherwise, it's like thinking you've seen the Eiffel Tower in Paris when all you did was board the plane at Changi. If your child is not of that calibre or suited for a highly competitive environment, getting into a top school can have disastrous outcomes. It is not a guaranteed route to success.

Nobody thinks it will happen to them but guess what, it always happens to someone. Know your children and ask yourself if they will truly thrive in that sort of environment. Don't let them be victims of your own ambitions.

Monday, January 18, 2016

When the tutor is your sister

Last year was Lesley-Anne's 'A' level year and if I thought that was a stressful experience, I suspect it was just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we'll be going through this year - Andre's 'O levels. Dum dum DUM!

All those years through primary school, then secondary school, of waiting for Andre to suddenly develop maturity of thought and an academic fervour were in vain. Thank you to all the mummies who tried to encourage me by saying boys mature later, but I didn't realise "later" could mean anything from 12 to 45. Or perhaps by "mature", they meant remembering to do homework.

Maybe I exaggerate (or maybe not). Going by Andre's sec 3 results, I wouldn't say they were a disaster. In fact, as I'd posted last year, he did better than expected. However, the element of chance seems to play too prominently for my liking so this year, I'm attempting to increase the odds of him doing well by playing my trump card - engaging Lesley-Anne as tutor.

I'm counting on Lesley-Anne to transfer some of her admirable work ethic to her brother. By drilling, osmosis or qigong, I don't really care, as long as it works. I am hopeful that it will happen because Lesley-Anne is a very tough tutor. During one of the sessions, she grilled him on concepts and sternly made him repeat them ad nauseum until she was sure they wouldn't leak right back out of his head. When I timidly suggested, "Err...could I request that he doesn't lose his love for learning by the end of the year?", she instantly replied, "No! Do you want the marks or do you want him to love learning? This is the Singapore education system! You can't have both!" Keke. Future Tiger Mum.

It's a win-win-win situation for everyone. Win for us parents: Lesley-Anne is much cheaper than any other tutor out there, plus Andre can always call on her during emergencies (it helps that her room is less than 10 metres away). Win for Andre: He'd much rather learn from Lesley-Anne than any other tutor as he has intrinsic faith in his sister to help bring up his grades. Not sure why but I think he secretly believes she possesses super powers. Win for Lesley-Anne: extra income without having to leave the house. 'Nuff said.

Of course she's not able to tutor him in everything. She has long relinquished all her Science knowledge and Maths...well, you probably all know Lesley-Anne's relationship with Maths by now. Tolerated, never loved. Her responsibilities are English and Combined Humanities (Social Studies and Geography). This is quite a tall order as Andre's strength has never been in language or the humanities. But I have faith that determination and sibling solidarity will prevail.

Go, Sista!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Junior college or polytechnic - factors to consider

The 'O' level results will be released today, so I thought it would be timely to write a JC vs poly post. This topic is something that has been discussed in our household over the past couple of years, since Andre will have to make the decision soon.

 As I'd blogged about previously, Andre is certain that he will be pursuing the poly route, unlike his sister. This decision was reinforced when we visited a couple of poly open houses last weekend. He was instantly drawn to the vibe and energy there. There's just something about polys - probably partly due to the large open campuses and the fact that the students don't need to wear school uniforms, but you can practically inhale the vibrant atmosphere.

We spoke to a few lecturers and students. Andre was very impressed by the practical curriculum offered, with the myriad of opportunities for internships and overseas attachments. The facilities are, of course, fantastic. So he's now more motivated than ever to work for his O levels and aim for the course he wants.

Sometimes, I despair when I hear parents' views like, "you should go to a JC if you can because it's better." Better? What constitutes "better"? Often, the very myopic consideration is simply based on cut-off-point (COP). It seems like in Singapore, people monitor COPs the way stock brokers do with share prices. From the time of PSLE, parents scrutinise COPs like they hold the answer to the secret of their children's success. That's like believing a weighing scale is all you need to tell you how healthy you are.

JCs and polys couldn't be more different in terms of the curriculum, teaching style, grading system and overall environment. There is no one "better" path for everyone. Ultimately, the most important consideration is fit. I just can't imagine Andre in a JC - that would be like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole - with great difficulty and unlikely to generate satisfactory results. Whereas when I saw him at the poly, I could see how easily he would fit into the culture, with a real chance of thriving. It was a no-brainer, no matter what his eventual results will be. 

I'd previously worked at a polytechnic and with Lesley-Anne having undergone two years of JC, I feel I have garnered sufficient knowledge on both options. So here are my views on the JC vs Poly debate and how you can determine which is a better fit for your child. Note: Lesley-Anne sat for the 'A' levels so I'm referring to JC only from the 'A' level point of view, not IB, as I don't know enough about the latter. 

Academic vs Applied Education

JC is basically an enhanced version of secondary school. Most of the subjects are familiar, just taught in greater depth and detail. However, one point I would like to make to parents is that the leap in difficulty from secondary school to JC is exponential. Not only is the subject content enlarged significantly, at JC level, application skills are essential. You can't simply memorise content and regurgitate in the exams, and expect to do well, unlike at the 'O' levels, especially for the arts subjects. There are many students who scored A grades in secondary school, in Chemistry for example, and find themselves failing 'A' level Chemistry. So do understand your child's abilities when making the decision. You hear about the straight A students from the media so often that you might think it's almost a cinch to do well. It's not. Many students struggle and more than a few end up repeating a year or two, even in the top JCs. You don't read reports about these cases.

The course selection for 'A' levels is also much more limited. Out of the four core subjects, one has to be a contrasting subject. For Arts students, this subject is often required to be Maths, unless they take Knowledge Inquiry (KI) which takes the place of General Paper (GP) and can be counted as a contrasting subject. There are also many more restrictions on subject choice. In Lesley-Anne's JC, for instance, you can't take Chemistry without taking Maths, and you can't take Biology or Physics without taking Chemistry. (In other words, Maths and Chemistry are practically compulsory if you're in the Science stream). For the Arts subjects, you can't take both Geography and History. You also can't take two special or niche subjects, like KI and English Language and Linguistics (ELL).

Poly education is applied - meaning it's designed to groom graduates towards certain industries or vocations. The modules tend to be very practical and poly students are trained to be work-ready upon graduation. As such, poly education is also very much more specialised. As of now, there are 234 courses offered by the 5 polytechnics. It's enough to make your head spin. There are often electives in years 2 and 3 where you can specialise even further. Since most courses carve out a specific niche, you need to be very sure what you want to do as a career. It would be disastrous to enroll in Early Childhood Education, for instance, then later realise that you don't really like teaching or kids all that much.

From talking to poly lecturers, one of the biggest problems they face is students who enroll in courses and later realise that the courses are not what they expect or not suitable for them. Then they find themselves having to ask for transfers to a different course mid-way, thus wasting time and funds, or sticking to a pathway that they are unhappy with. So if your children, at age 16, aren't sure what they would like to do with their lives, it's probably a safer bet to study general academic courses at a JC.

Course Structure

The JC course structure is similar to that of secondary school. You sit for various common tests and exams throughout the year, culminating in the main one at the end of the year (promos for J1 and the big 'A' levels for J2). I find the JC journey very short. Since you enter in February and graduate before the 'A' levels in October, the teachers have to squeeze a heck of a lot of curriculum within 1¾ years. As a result, it feels like the students spend the entire period just mugging for exam after exam, especially in J2. 

The added stress comes about because the 'A' levels is a national exam where you're pit against the nation's other 18-year-olds and race towards accumulating as many A grades as you can possibly muster. The pressure is on both students and teachers alike. Also, the grades in this one exam are all that matter, for university admissions. You could be an excellent all-rounder throughout your JC life but choke at the 'A's and find that your previous stellar record didn't matter in the least. Terribly unfair and unhealthy, in my opinion. 

Polys run on the modular system, which gives you more flexibility. There is less focus on exams and more on assignments and project work. Your grading is based on Grade Point Average (GPA), taking into account your work throughout the three years. While this means that your grade is not dependent on one major exam, it also means that you can only do well if you put in consistent work. You can't slack off throughout the year and chiong only at the last minute - that's a recipe for disaster. Once your GPA drops, you might find it difficult to pull it back up on track.

Higher Education

The traditional thinking is that you go to a JC if you're university-bound whereas you go to a poly if you're not, since they train you for the workplace. These days however, many poly graduates want to further their education to improve their career prospects and progression. What are their chances then? If you look at the stats, you will see that the odds are stacked against poly graduates: about 70% of JC students and 20% of poly students enter local universities.

Statistically speaking, your chances of a local university education are much lower if you're a poly grad, even though the government now acknowledges the dreams of poly students for higher qualifications and are trying to widen avenues for them, such as the expansion of the Singapore Institute of Technology, which offers applied degree programmes for poly students. Many poly grads thus choose to go overseas for their degrees which is definitely pricier. Sometimes though, overseas is more appropriate if you prefer specialised programmes which are not offered by local universities anyway, such as Human Resources or Interactive Media.

In terms of time investment, you may be surprised to learn that there can be no difference between the JC-university and the poly-university route. Even though JC takes 2 years and poly takes 3 years, poly students, if taking up a related university programme overseas, are often granted exemptions on certain courses, as much as 1.5 years in a three-year programme! This is, of course, assuming you go on to a related course, eg. Mass Comm in poly moving on to a Mass Comm degree. If you move on to an unrelated course, you will not get any exemptions and have to complete the full programme. Local universities too, tend not to offer exemptions.

English Proficiency

I added this last point because I think it's an important one often overlooked. I'd written before how I'm baffled by the 'O' level point system which grants two additional points to students who pass Higher Mother Tongue. Two points for 'O' levels is a LOT. In addition, you can choose to count either English or Higher Mother Tongue as your L1 in L1R5 for admission into JC. Why? This implies that Mother Tongue is more important that English, our official language.

What can potentially happens then is this: a kid who is very proficient in Chinese and attains A1 for Higher Chinese can use it as L1 AND shave off 2 additional points from his total L1R5, thereby giving him or her a very good L1R5 score, while scoring poorly in English.

This is a loophole that I feel MOE should close, not only because it's a farce but because a student who is weak in English will struggle in JC. At JC, writing essays is a must. Even if you choose to go to the Science stream, you'll need to take a contrasting Arts subject, which would definitely require essay-writing. A friend of mine, who's an Econs teacher at a JC, recounted to me her frustration in trying to teach students who lack the English proficiency to express themselves clearly. In addition, GP requires a good command of the English language. Incidentally, if you fail GP, you would have deemed to have failed your entire 'A' levels. Gulp. It explains why so many students have tuition in GP.

In short, a student who is weak in English might want to reconsider going to JC as the language skills required are substantial. Not that you don't need English in poly education but because the modules are applied in nature, language use tends to be more practice-oriented. Polys also have communications skills modules to help students brush up on their English.

At the end of the day, I stress again that fit is the most important consideration when choosing between JC and poly. Visiting open houses is a great way to get a feel of the environment, and do speak to students and teachers. The poly open houses were last weekend but I believe many JCs have open houses this week. Go take a look with your child if you can.

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