Mission of public education is to facilitate social mobility

by Singaporean Sophist

I refer to the article "MM Lee: Family backgrounds play important role in students’ learning environment".

Statistically, there is nothing factually wrong with saying that kids whose parents have degrees tend to fare better in academics. The Economist cites OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) research, saying that,"Parents who graduated from university are far more likely than non-graduates to raise children who also earn degrees. This is true in all countries, but more so in America and France than in Israel, Finland or South Korea, according to the OECD." With due respect, what MM Lee said was absolutely true, but it's very insensitive to utter those remarks when A) it's a politician who does it, and B) he said it in a public school at that.

The mission of a public education system is meant to facilitate social mobility. What's the point of saying something that discourages that very mission? It's extremely counter-productive and antithetical to everything this country stands for in the spirit of meritocracy.

I do not think it is necessary to harp on about what our education system has achieved. It is fundamentally sound and gives our children the needed competitive edge to excel in this era of globalization, but we should at first acknowledge that it has its critical flaws that severely hamper social mobility. Below are several points that will address the flaws:

1. Regulate private tuition

Let's not kid ourselves. Our education system is heavily supplemented by not just school-held enrichment classes, but also by private tutors. Some may think of them as overcharging parasites, some think of them essential to the system because teachers are incapable of teaching their children well enough. I've been through the "elite" schools as an ACS(I) boy and I can attest to the substantial sums of money that are spent on private tuition so that the students could get into the "elite" schools, and move on to excel in them onwards to JC.

Private tuition is costly. It may not be as prohibitive as trying to buy a new car, but the additional costs are hefty enough to leave the everyday heartlander out of the picture and denies them the advantage that private tuition offers in order to compete in our local system. Private tuition will not go away for good, so it has to be regulated. Every private tutor has to be registered and their fees regulated as well.

But that will be merely treating the symptom, not the cancer that eats away at the education system and oppresses the kids. What can be done to get rid of the cancer?

2. Reduce the complexity and insanity of primary school syllabus

Before people retort that relaxing standards will make our children less competitive, I want to cite the observations made by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers". He observes that as long as people are trained to a certain level of capability for general intellectual pursuits, overdoing it becomes redundant and a waste of time and resources as a person with "good enough" training will perform just as well as an overtrained person.

This isn't advanced university education we're talking about. This is primary school education. These are young minds we're talking about here and there's only so much they can do and absorb before they break down. The syllabus and curriculum needs to be significantly relaxed for the kids to play and grow and dream. Foundations are important, but destroying the kids' minds in the process and numbing them to the joys of learning is counterproductive.

To further help in this cause, streaming in primary school should be abolished. Children these days feel helpless and categorized like things instead of being treated like proper human beings. Streaming can wait till secondary school. This leads on to-

3. Effective training for teachers

Our teachers have one of the most unenviable careers in this country and I salute them. It's difficult to stay in this field for long without having genuine passion for their work and they need to be better equipped for the job with better training so that they can better cope with the syllabus, and the students need not resort to private tuition.

Take a look at this, and understand how Finland manages to keep pace with Asian students in international contests without potentially damaging their children's psyches.

4. Cease the madness in examinations

School is where children go to, to learn how to be proper members of society. One of the key lessons that the kids learn is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will be rewarded accordingly. Makes sense right?

But this hasn't been the case until 1-2 years ago when the kids have been studying their textbooks and find their PSLE papers to have questions that feature nothing in their textbooks. Students with natural inborn talent score well in those papers and those who get left behind feel that they have not been rewarded properly for following the rules. What happens then? They stop giving a damn when they go to secondary school and a good lot turn to delinquency.

I used to work at a LAN gaming center for 18 months and have been part of a gaming clan for 7 years. One of the young customers I spoke to was a former gangster and he recounted how he stopped caring about studying ever since his primary school experience demonstrated to him that he wouldn't be rewarded well even if he followed the rules and studied hard. Now we get surprised that someone got hacked to death by youngsters at ages 16-19 at Downtown East?

The textbooks and tests are a contract between teacher and student: I tell you what to study in them, you study it and I set questions from the textbook. If you do well in the test, well done and good job. This contract applies also in universities when the professors give out the syllabus for the semester, and students have the right to bring it to the dean if there is a discrepancy.

Our Ministry of Education has broken that contract with our kids many, many times at the PSLE until recently when the madness stopped, and the exam papers have resembled sanity befitting of primary school education. This madness needs to stop for good - we cannot afford this to be a mere temporary measure.