Sunday, September 23, 2012

Primary Colours Part 3 : 49 Shades of Grey

A number of people who commented on my post on PSLE (Primary Colours 2: The PSLE Dilemma) appear to have mis-read it. They said I wanted to scrap the PSLE. Let me break down what I actually said:
(a) It matters a great deal which secondary school a child goes to;
(b) The PSLE determines which secondary school a child goes to;
(c) PSLE has therefore become more a competition, forcing parents to take measures which (they think) will help their child outscore their peers. This is at the expense of a proper childhood and possibly even a good education;
(d) I am in favour of scrapping PSLE PROVIDED there is a better way to determine secondary school placement;
(e) I considered several alternatives, and ultimately advocated a system which offers parents more choices. This includes having non-government primary schools, affiliated primary and secondary schools and a common exam for entry to "better" schools.
I am glad that my post has generated some debate. I think it is good that we have a full and frank conversation about such serious issues. What is clear is that very few like the current system. But it is equally telling that no particular solution has garnered any general support or consensus.
One alternative was proposed by the Managing Editor of ST, Mr Han Fook Kwang. Writing in today's Sunday Times, Mr Han said he was against scrapping PSLE, and instead suggested sending better teachers to under- performing schools. His intention is clearly noble. But the necessary consequence is that we will also send "less good" teachers to better performing schools.
The problem with this and other similar suggestions is that it mis-states the Government's role in education. When we say that education is the great leveller in society, we mean that it should enable every child to reach his potential and not be deprived of opportunities because of his background or circumstances. It does NOT mean that we should cause all children to come to the same level by lifting up the lower performers and dragging down the better ones.
Mr Han also said that he is not in favour of scrapping the PSLE because "it represents, for the families in the heartlands, that one chance of a lifetime for their children to have a shot at academic stardom and that coveted place in a top secondary school". This underscores the problem with the arguments in favour of keeping the current system. First, no one is suggesting that any new system should take away the opportunity to advance. On the contrary, the fear is that the current system is weighed against those who are less well off, because they cannot afford (good) tuition and therefore cannot compete. Second, and more importantly, the fact that PSLE is seen as a "once in a lifetime" chance IS the problem. Children should not have their futures determined by a single exam when they are only 12years old. That particularly prejudices children who are less well off who, because if they fall behind early in the race, they have a more difficult route to attaining tertiary education.
But Mr Han does raise one more "myth" which the MOE should address: do better teachers end up in better schools? Schools with better resources will be able to offer better terms, and therefore have their pick of teachers. That is one reason for the intense competition to get into them. While I am not in favour of a policy which sends better teachers to lower performing schools, I am equally against the reverse happening, by design or otherwise.
It would therefore be good if the MOE could inform the public how it ensures a fair distribution of teaching talent and resources. And I hope the answer will not be that every teacher is a good teacher.

1 comment:

  1. I am surprised that the Khan Academy model is not raised by more education experts in this debate.

    The PSLE was designed to allocate scarce resources i.e. perceived better opportunities and programs available to students in some schools but not others.

    It serves as a poor instrument to discern proficiency in the various subjects at the accuracy expected of it. i.e. single grade level by 1 point. It leads children to have a fixed mindset about themselves. This is silly especially when there a more than a few silly questions set in PSLE that adults would answer differently vs. a PSLE-hot house child. Enhance the benefits of tuition for a child vs. those without.

    How to transition out of PSLE?
    I would undermine PSLE by encouraging my child to take self-paced, self-directed KHAN Academy courses.

    The KHAN model is clearly superior in terms of allocating opportunities and teacher time. Are we squabbling over something that technology has made much more redundant.

    If your child has open access to mentors and instruction from primary 1 to sophomore College Level courses for free, at a quality that even Bill Gates with all his resources would use on his own child! PSLE does not matter. If you child is rated Artisan Trigonometrician in the Khan Academy or is rated proficient in multivariate calculus and can achieve AP credit at MIT,CMU, Caltech etc, he is not going to be very shaken by being allocated to a neighborhood secondary school.

    The country is losing vast tracts of it's children's potential each cohort. The vast majority of her children are labelled not good enough to get to a class for them to pickup Calculus. It sets up too many of our scarce children for unnecessarily fixed mindset about themselves.

    The analytics already readily available from the 100 million lessons conducted at Khan show an alternate future waiting for our kids if we parents can get our act together.