Thursday, December 22, 2011

We need a major rethink of our educational system.... and please do so outside of the box.

One of the areas that Singapore can be very proud of is how we have been able to make education so available to our kids, to the extent that we can say that no child will be denied a chance to go to school. In the previous generation there many capable people who had limited opportunities simply because they did not have access to education. But not anymore. Education has indeed been the great leveler for this generation. Because schooling is now accessible to every child regardless of his/her  socioeconomic background, career opportunities are limited more by abilities and skills rather than the individual's socioeconomic stratum. Likewise for gender and ethnicity.

But sadly this appears true only to a certain degree.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) should be congratulated for making examination data available to the public. One wishes though that they would put up more detailed data, and not only cherry picked information for public consumption.

The recent data is quite instructive. They are really quite similar to previous years' data and therefore really doesn't say anything new. True, there are some wiggly movements in percentages, but they are relatively small changes. Over a long period one can see that the performance data is relatively stable. Boringly stable. This stability is actually both comforting and alarming. Comforting because it means the MOE has done an excellent job in providing education. Not much more to do. Alarming because despite all this effort, fixed disparities in educational performances between ethnic groups are apparent.

If we look at the performance at the Primary School Leaving Examinations,we see more than 90% of students pass the exams. But only the Chinese outperform the national average. The Malay students, as a group, under-perform everyone else.

This ethnic ranking not only persist at the O-levels, but the differences are markedly accentuated. And this is for 5 O-level passes. I am quite sure if we set more stringent criteria, even greater differences can be demonstrated.

This is alarming because the data is not improving despite what the amount of resources the MOE has put into the school system. I am sure the MOE is aware of this problem. But I hope they are not ignoring it. Something drastic needs to be done because the current models are not working.

To an outsider, looking at the data, such 'fixed' differences suggest a number of possibilities:
a] Our delivery of education has ethnic biases;
b] Our way of assessing has ethnic biases;
c] Ethnic biases exist in both instruction and assessment; or
d] There are real ethnic related limitations in abilities.

Since I do not subscribe to there being biologically and ethnically related limitations in ability, it must be that the first three are valid.

The MOE must spare no effort to get to the bottom of this problem. It must not rest on the laurels of its past accomplishments. There are unintended ethnic biases in how education is delivered to the public as well as ethnic biases in how the examinations are set. It is not adequate to congratulate ourselves on the performance at a national level, because this is invariably defined by the performance of the largest and most successful ethnic group. This is unfair to the minority groups who may have unaddressed special needs and considerations.

We need to remodel our educational paradigm to level the playing field for all ethnic groups.


Anonymous said...

No mention of the racist inspired sap much for thinking out of the box.

gigamole said...

errmm....not sure what you are trying to say.

FA said...

Hey Gigamole,
Good to know you're highlighting an issue with the educational status of the minorities in Singapore. I happen to be one of them (half Malay, half Indian, but really Malay by self-identity) and very rarely do I find the Chinese interested in such things.
You pointed out that the data are quite boring with some 'wiggly movements', but trust me, being a follower of the debate in the Malay community in the last few years, the powers that be, especially the government-sponsored 'self-help' group MENDAKI, take any wiggly movements upwards as a sign of progress; for some bizarre reason, they ignore the wiggly movements down! Sounds familiar? It can get as ridiculous as writing an report or article in the Straits Times or Berita Harian trumpeting a 1.5 percentage point increase from a single year in a single subject while ignoring the larger trend of stagnation or even decline over a decade!

Has happened so many times before and it happened again a week ago in Berita Harian, the quivalent of the Straits Times (in more ways than one) for the Malays. "Good performance of Malay students" read the headlines. But statistically-challenged and more importantly, government-appointed, individuals interviewed (including the CEO of MENDAKI) attributed sub-zero percentage increases in one subject in one year (Mathematics) to various factors such as better tuition programs ignoring other stats from other years. I've already written a reply to this nonsensical, likely politically-motivated, story-making, so we'll see if it gets published.

Nonetheless, it is clear to anyone with an objective view of the data that there is hardly any trend suggesting the Malays are catching up. In fact, a lot of the higher achievement statistics such as tertiary education rates have shown that the gap is widening despite the improvements made by the Malay community.

I tend to get overly passionate about statistics, which can get quite technical aka boring But one thing I would like to point out is that the Malay students also suffer from the classic 'risk factors' for poor educational outcomes such as relatively lower educated parents, lower incomes, lack of cultural emphasis on education, etc. So, the MOE stats we're seeing that takes race as an independent variable can really be alternatively charted using other proxies such as socio-economic indicators. I bet the stagnation you see in the 'race chart' will be present in such a 'socio-economic chart'. In statistical parlance, socio-economic variables mediate the race effect because the different races have very different socio-economic statuses. This turns the issue around: instead of a race issue, it is really a socio-economic issue and because the Malays are overrepresented in the lower socio-economic ladder, it misleadingly comes out as a 'Malay' problem.

This does not invalidate arguments of any ethnic biases in the system, of course. But as with anything statistical, it's a matter of which factor explains the biggest variance. Without the proper stats and objective studies (which MOE is famous for not doing despite all its claim about a world-class education provider), it is hard to tell.


gigamole said...

The data seems to indicate that ethnic disparities have become somewhat 'fixed'. I am not so convinced that this is just scoio-economic although it does play a significant part in the equation. It seems to me that if education is equitably delivered, the socio-economics shouldn't matter. Unfortunately the educational system although accessible to all, creates a situation where tuitions and home environment becomes more important than what happens in school. So the actual delivery of education is unequal.