Unanswered questions about MOE’s SERI Committee report

by Lisa Li

Source: MOE

In December 2010, Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE) published an extensive report by the Secondary Education Review and Implementation (SERI) Committee, which conducted seven focus group discussions in Singapore's schools and studied education systems in Australia, China, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, UK, US and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme.

It is evident that much hard work produced the SERI report which offers a wide range of recommendations, such as the creation of Student Centres in all secondary schools, the implementation of new modules to give Express and N(A) students more variety, the "Step Curriculum" for N(T) students, and Through-Train Programmes to polytechnic for N(A) students.

It is also heartening that MOE plans to provide secondary schools with three more teacher posts from 2011, and more teachers in tandem with the start of new programmes. Accordingly, the Pupil-Teacher Ratio in secondary schools is expected to improve from 16:1 in 2009 to 13:1 by end 2015 (Report of the SERI Committee, p61), which will certainly be a welcome improvement.

The collaboration between MOE and commercial publishers

Yet, in the midst of all these clear and specific recommendations, there is one issue that seems rather vague -- SERI's point on commercial publishers and instructional materials.

On page 46 of the SERI report, it was briefly mentioned that "currently, secondary school textbooks are collaboratively published with commercial publishers" and MOE should "facilitate the production of better instructional materials with commercial publishers for the teaching of the English language and Mathematics."

The report elaborates that such resources "could include teachers’ guides, manipulatives and digital resources" in order to "strengthen the alignment between the instructional materials and the intended curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of students." (emphasis added)

Abruptly, the next paragraph in the SERI report was on the provision of allied educators in the N(T) and N(A) classroom.

Given that teachers' guides and other digital resources have already been produced for many years, it is unfortunate that the SERI report did not include any new insights or recommendations gleaned from their study of the other education systems, instead leaving it to the relevant MOE department to evaluate on their own.

To get a better understanding of these issues, The Online Citizen spoke to N, an editor in a major publishing house which has been publishing textbooks, teachers' guides and digital resources for many years.

N explained that the current mode of collaboration is one that gives MOE officers overall control over the material, while not needing to write the textbook themselves. In this model, MOE produces the syllabus and different companies submit chapters in a tender process. Upon obtaining the contract, the commercial publisher(s) would hire writers to develop materials, with MOE involved at almost every stage to review the material and suggest changes.

Although N did not elaborate on the tender process, it seems likely that a combination of quality, price and production efficiency would be some criteria by which this contract is awarded.

If so, what are the implications of producing instructional materials via a tender process and commercial contract? Might MOE be swayed by the "Cheaper, Better, Faster" mantra, and is this the best way to produce quality textbooks and teachers' guides?

More specifically, who are these writers hired by commercial publishers to write the textbooks and are they well-equipped to do so? According to N, the writers are "almost always former teachers". As writers with classroom experience, they may indeed be able to produce practical lesson plans.

Yet, to the layman, it seems logical to wonder why our schools' textbooks and teachers' guides are produced by anonymous writers privately hired by commercial publishers seeking to win a tender, instead of Singapore's curriculum specialists and pedagogical experts who are employed by MOE and the National Institute of Education (NIE).

Furthermore, would a competitive commercial contract give publishers and MOE sufficient time to create useful, engaging and lasting instructional materials?

"Timelines are always tight," N said. "We (the publishers) are given one year to create a textbook package, which includes a textbook, a teacher's guide, workbooks and CD-ROMs as well."

For the writers, it appears that the timeline is even tighter, as, according to N, they only have about "two or three months to write the first draft for an entire book", although the timeline varies with length and difficulty level of the project, and they are also involved in the rewrites that come after each review and feedback stage.

The improvement of instructional materials

Of course, being laymen unfamiliar with this process, we would not know if this commercial collaboration is really the best way, and if MOE's final vetting and approval is adequate in producing quality instructional materials.

That is why it would have been beneficial if the SERI Committee, which studied other countries' education systems, had also conducted a comparative study of how these systems produce quality instructional materials. For example, do they all produce their textbooks and teachers' guides via a tender process with commercial publishers collaborating with the education ministries?

Perhaps this comparative study was indeed done, but left out of the SERI report due to space constraints. We hope so, as such a study would surely help MOE to come up with clear improvements to "facilitate the production of better instructional materials" and "strengthen the alignment between the instructional materials and the intended curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of students."

It is undeniable that the SERI Committee has collated and produced many beneficial and specific recommendations. Nevertheless, when good recommendations come without specific suggestions, the danger is that it may be too easy to accept -- without any real change.

You can download the pdf file of the report here.