Wednesday 18 July 2012

Tuition and Academic Excellence

No, success is about motivation and hard work

MS WILY Wan argues that the education system is unfairly crafted in a way that benefits wealthy parents who can afford to enrol their children in expensive tuition classes ('S'pore way works, but only with tuition'; last Saturday).

She implicitly links academic success with the amount of tuition a student receives.

It is indeed unacceptable if our education system is lopsided.

However, my experience as a student who has had tuition in secondary school, but not in primary school and junior college, tells me otherwise.

Every student has a fair chance of moving up the social ladder.

Success in our education system is not acutely dependent on extra tuition and enrichment lessons that wealthier parents can afford, but on a student's motivation and hard work.

There is simply no substitute for hard work, regardless of one's perceived 'tuition advantage'.

Students are free to book consultation slots with their teachers, and the weaker ones are identified early in the semester through tests so that they can receive extra attention via supplementary classes.

This is, in fact, also a form of privilege that all students receive in school, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The teachers in the schools I attended often stayed behind - late into the night - to coach and help students who were otherwise unable to afford private tuition.

Their efforts are an academic leveller for the less privileged students.

While the well-to-do students have an advantage, it does not mean that those who are less well-off are being left out of the equation.

In addition, the growing tuition trend does not result from the decreased effectiveness of our education system. It is merely a reflection of parents' willingness to spend on their children's education, which is beneficial for the students if it does not impede their learning in other holistic aspects.

Schools, community centres and religious organisations are also providing cheaper or even free tuition by volunteers with respectable credentials.

Ms Wan also suggested that it would be interesting to see how our students who have not had external tutoring would fare in international education rankings.

Well, without tuition, I managed to obtain five As in the A-level exams. I am not extraordinarily clever, and there are many others like me.

Tuition does not guarantee success, only sheer motivation and hard work will.
Nicholas Lee
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2012

Yes, there is a link and an unfortunate divide
MS WILY Wan's response last Saturday ('S'pore way works, but only with tuition') to Ms Yeo Boon Eng's letter ('Tough Singapore way works'; last Wednesday) hit the nail on the head.

Our education system does not necessarily facilitate social mobility; in fact, it has conversely led to a widening social stratification.

The elite schools are increasingly equipping the children of better-educated parents with the resources to give them a head start in life.

Having taught in mainstream schools as well as in the tuition industry, I can attest to the fact that most parents view tuition and enrichment classes as indispensable to giving their children that extra edge.

Most remain unconvinced that teachers in mainstream schools can focus purely on teaching, given the large class sizes and miscellaneous administrative duties that divert their attention from preparing lessons and monitoring their students' progress closely.

Parents prefer to hedge their bets by enrolling their children in tuition and enrichment classes should their school teachers fail to deliver.

If our schools are indeed excellent in teaching, the enrichment industry would not be flourishing at such a clip.

In fact, the more established institutions are recession-proof, regardless of the stiff fees they charge.

It is food for thought indeed for the Ministry of Education.

While schools are indeed striving to provide quality holistic education, they may have given classroom teaching short shrift in their haste to implement too many educational initiatives.

Lastly, Singapore's meritocratic system in itself has the unintended ill-effect of spurring intense competition, be it getting a place in a prestigious school through the direct school admission exercise or the national examinations, or clinching a scholarship.

It is ultimately a zero-sum game.

There is no denying the fact that better-off families have the decided leverage, especially if parents are willing to spare no expense in preparing their children for academic success.
Marietta Koh Ai-meng (Mrs)
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2012

Parents' unrealistic expectations the reason for tuition obsession...
STUDENTS receive the same standard of education in local schools, although it is undeniable that their results will vary due to natural differences ('S'pore way works, but only with tuition' by Ms Wily Wan, last Saturday; in reply to my letter, 'Tough Singapore way works'; last Wednesday).

The need for tuition arises from the fact that some parents expect their children to excel, regardless of their innate abilities. Over the years, their expectations have changed - parents now expect their children to score As instead of simply passing. Few students require tuition to pass examinations, and many do not require tuition to excel.

With so much time allocated to tuition by parents, children cannot find the time to enjoy their childhood. How can the blame be placed on our education system then?

If the curriculum were to be simplified or examination results adjusted such that most students can score distinctions without any assistance, then the potential of those who can cope with the present system will not be stretched and top students cannot be identified.

Will this situation be of any good to Singapore? We will only be deceiving ourselves as the quality of students remains the same, if not worse.

Education is not only competition in the local context - we are also competing with the world. What is the point of simplifying the curriculum, only to lose out on jobs in today's globalised world?

Furthermore, if the curriculum is too easy, those who can afford to do so will switch to a more realistic curriculum offered by international schools, leaving the majority behind and thus decreasing social mobility.

In this case, instead of tuition centres, we will see private schools mushrooming. Do we really want to have a system in which public schools offer a curriculum that is inferior to that of private schools?

It saddens me that Singaporeans are unappreciative of our meritocratic education system that provides ample opportunities for social mobility, at a time when many countries envy us for it.
Yeo Boon Eng (Ms)
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2012

Notes about an inconvenient truth
THAT parents demand tuition for their children and students futilely submit to it, all the while lamenting the inadequacies of our schooling system, ignores an inconvenient but incontrovertible statistical truth ('S'pore way works, but only with tuition' by Ms Wily Wan; last Saturday).

In any cohort lined up, there will always be the best and the worst so that shuffling the order with any amount of tuition can but change the sequence a little bit and only temporarily.

Indeed, it is impossible for the least innately endowed to catch up with the fortunate top percentiles if both sets of students enjoy the same benefits of our education system, apply themselves as assiduously and enrich themselves similarly through tuition and other programmes.

It is my experience that students who top the class in primary schools, through the artifice of tuition, do not continue to excel in secondary schools, junior college and university. It gets students only so far before things return to their natural order.

Personally, tutoring my children has made me realise that they have succeeded not because of me but in spite of my (superfluous) efforts.

Looking back, I would have been a far better parent by enriching their young minds through smelling more flowers and seeing the beauty in a grain of sand.

This is not advocacy for a defeatist or fatalistic attitude, allowing karma to dictate our children's academic fates.

Each of our students is unique and talented in his own way.

Our role as parents is to discover and nurture their innate ability (not necessarily academic) which makes them stand at the head of the queue based on their inborn aptitude, so that they already have a natural head start over others. Don't try squeezing square pegs into round holes.

The most successful people in my cohort - the ones who were able to uplift, influence and benefit the people most, like politicians, entrepreneurs, musicians and, yes, pastors - were not book prize winners in school.
Dr Yik Keng Yeong
ST Forum, 21 Jul 2012

...But parents are told only tuition can guarantee good grades
I FULLY agree with Ms Wily Wan's reply ('S'pore way works, but only with tuition'; last Saturday) to Ms Yeo Boon Eng ('Tough Singapore way works'; last Wednesday).

Science tuition is a growing industry. At the start of the school year, parents are told by speakers from enrichment/tuition centres that our children will score only a passing mark in the subject for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) if they do not go for tuition.

This is not a reflection on the teachers, I hasten to say. Whereas the science textbooks they work with give minimal information on the examination topics, the questions asked in the PSLE are complex and wide-ranging.

Ironically, very little time is spent by pupils in the science laboratories trying out the concepts they are crammed with.

I am not a teacher but in my view, the science syllabus and the PSLE science examination should be revamped. Pupils should spend more time in the lab, and part of the marks should be awarded for conducting a number of experiments throughout the year.

We should not be complacent about the fact that Singapore students are ranked fourth in the world in science, or that other countries are debating whether to follow the Singapore way. After all, the credit for this most likely goes to the tuition centres.
Dev Nair (Mrs)
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2012

S'pore way works, but only with tuition

MS YEO Boon Eng argues that our education system facilitates social mobility, and therefore should be maintained as it is ('Tough Singapore way works'; Wednesday).

I beg to differ.

I do not believe that any Singaporean is asking for our system to be dumbed down. What many parents want is a more balanced and rounded education that prepares our children effectively for the future, yet allows them time to play and develop holistically, and gives families time to bond.

The fact that a few exceptional students from lower-income families can succeed despite the current system is not proof that our education system facilitates social mobility.

How can we tell ourselves that all students stand an equal chance of moving up the social ladder, when success in our education system is highly dependent on the extra tuition and enrichment lessons that wealthier parents can afford and poorer parents cannot?

Because of the way our education system is structured and operated, students from lower-income families cannot compete equally with those from better-off families.

That, in principle, is unacceptable.

If our education system is as effective as we like to believe, then we might ask ourselves why so many children need so much extra tutoring at every level.

There is no point having 'free' education when families must spend thousands of dollars more to supplement what is being taught in school, so that their children can cope.

In fact, it would be interesting to find out how Singapore would fare in international educational rankings if we selected children who have not had the benefit of external tutoring to sit the ranking tests.

We must review how our education system operates.

As a nation, we need to be willing to spend more money on education.

We need to have smaller classes and more age-appropriate testing, and discourage the 'tuition' mindset and unhealthy competition, especially among primary schools, for the 'top school' label, as well as stop our obsession with international rankings.

Our schools and their top managements must refocus on the core purpose of education - to educate our children academically and as social beings, and to ensure that every Singaporean child has an equal shot at future success, regardless of whether his family can afford tuition.
Wily Wan (Ms)
ST Forum, 14 Jul 2012

Tough Singapore way works
MONDAY'S article ('GCE debate rages as study shows UK kids' maths woes') shows how lucky we in Singapore are to have equal educational opportunities.

While teachers in Britain claim that the current system using the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations is the only one able to ensure social mobility, statistics prove otherwise.

When Britain had the more rigorous exam curriculum of the O levels, a higher percentage of students from state schools, where poorer children study, were admitted to Cambridge and Oxford universities.

So if we are concerned about social mobility, we should not be asking for a less taxing curriculum in local schools. Let intelligent students from the lower- and middle-income groups have an equal chance of moving up the social ladder.

Another point the article makes is that although there has been an increase in the number of students gaining top grades over the years under the GCSE system, British students fared worse than their counterparts in many developed countries.

This shows that the quality of the students remained the same, though they graduated with better grades.

I am proud that our quality education system offered to all Singaporeans is being used by Britain as a basis for comparison.
Yeo Boon Eng (Ms)
ST Forum, 14 Jul 2012

GCE debate rages as study shows UK kids' maths woes
Study findings come amid education secretary's 'idea' to reinstate O levels
By Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, 9 Jul 2012

LONDON - English children are half as likely to attain top maths grades in international tests as their peers in other developed countries, a study by a British educational charity shows.

The Sutton Trust used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment which is administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of wealthy nations.

It found that only 1.7 per cent of English children achieved the highest level in maths, half the OECD average, and well below the 4.6 per cent of children in Germany or the 7.8 per cent in Switzerland and South Korea. The comparable figure for Singapore was 15.6 per cent last year. In educational terms, England ranks 26 out of 34 OECD countries.

The Sutton Trust's report comes at a sensitive time, just as the British government is embroiled in a passionate debate about the need to reform the country's school exams. And going by the discussions, ideology and social distinctions appear to be precluding any practical outcome.

The biggest controversy is over the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams which British students sit at the age of 16. Government papers recently leaked to the media suggest that Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to abolish the GCSE and reinstate the O-level examinations, which operated until the late 1980s and are still used in many English-speaking nations.

In theory, the current system is flourishing. Last year's GCSE passes rose for the 23rd year in a row, with three times as many students gaining top grades compared with those in 1988, when the exams started. But in every single international test, British students fared worse than their counterparts in many developed nations.

Critics of the current system claim that the only explanation for this discrepancy is that GCSE exams are getting easier.

The reason for this is GCSE papers are set by five different exam boards which are commercial enterprises; they make money from the marking and textbooks they endorse. Schools tend to pick boards where pass rates are highest, so the result is 'a race to the bottom', as Mr Gove calls it.

Recent studies back this. A survey by Ofqual, the national regulator, found GCSE exams are now less taxing. The British Academy, in a separate study, had the same conclusion: The anomalies 'in a system fraught with options for alternative ways of doing things is producing an unfair outcome'.

Mr Gove denies making any decision; the documents leaked represent 'various ideas', he says. But he uses the example of Singapore to reject the contention that the problem is one of resources. Singapore spent 3.3 per cent of its gross domestic product on education in 2010, half of what Britain did. But the results are incomparably better in part as, Mr Gove suggests, most Singaporeans sit an O-level exam. Britain requires 'explicitly harder examinations'.

The snag is that a return of the O levels requires separate arrangements for students who are incapable of sitting them but need a document attesting to the completion of school.

In the past, this was the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) which was associated with failure and class distinctions, since those who performed badly were also the poorest in society.

Mr Gove points out that there is no reason why the CSE should return with the O levels.

Still, the stigma associated with the old structure means that any reform encounters fierce opposition. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads the Liberal Democrats, has said he is 'very, very hostile' to the change.

And teachers claim the current system is the only one able to ensure social mobility. Mr Chris Keates, who runs the teaching union NASUWT, argues that introducing any new exams will 'brand individual young people for life' according to social classes.

But the evidence shows upholding a rigorous exam curriculum increases social mobility and attendance at leading universities.

When Britain had the O levels, up to 70 per cent of students gaining places at Oxford and Cambridge universities came from state schools, where poorer children study. But, since the GCSE system was introduced, the proportion has fallen to 50 per cent.

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