Educator Mark Rozells questions the idea of Singapore’s meritocracy as the Republic tops OECD PISA results but fares low in equity

The Singapore education system is not, at least statistically, the “grand social leveller” of the Republic’s society, contrary to what has been touted by many under the concept of meritocracy, observed Singaporean educator Mark Rozells.

While Singapore is ahead of other member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of academic achievement, he noted, in a Facebook post on 19 Apr, that the Republic fares very low in terms of equity of outcomes, as shown in a graph by Finnish educational researcher Pasi Sahlberg in a presentation on equity in education systems across countries at the World Edulead 2019 Conference in Singapore on 18 Apr.

Rozells urged the public to “take a cold, hard look at data” that demonstrates that while Singaporeans “have fantastic educational achievements” in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2016, the “value add … in socio-economic terms is pitiful”, particularly in sharp contrast with “other Asian countries like Japan or South Korea or even our nemesis, Hong Kong (another former British colony/city)”.

PISA – which tests students’ abilities in English, mathematics and the sciences – is a triennial international survey which aims to “evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students who are nearing the end of their compulsory education”, in addition to assessing “how well they can apply what they learn in school to real-life situations”.

“The data shows that we really need to look beyond the soul-stirring stories and anecdotes told by ministers and reported ad nauseam in papers of the few, too few, kids who beat the odds,” Rozells added.

Prof Sahlberg’s findings came across as a shock to Rozells, as he believed that “while we would not be fantastic in terms of equity, we still shouldn’t fare too badly”.

“We know that richer families have the disposable income to spend on private tuition, enrichment classes and educational resources.

“But I still believed while we would not be fantastic in terms of equity, we still shouldn’t fare too badly, considering how much we spend on public school education so that all our govt schools are well resourced, our teachers and principals centrally hired and trained, our curriculum kept up to date and responsive to the changing needs of the 21st century.

“And on top of that, our network of school subsidies, bursaries and financial assistance ensures that no child is denied an education because the family cannot afford it,” Rozells highlighted.

He stressed that while his observation “is not a condemnation of the Singapore Education System”, he questioned as to what more can be done to alleviate the inequity that exists within the outcomes of the education system.

“I know of many dedicated teachers and school administrators who have students from poor families in their schools, and these teachers and principals try their darnest best to help those students do well,” including offering “extra lessons, mentoring, enrichment, school based financial assistance, parent education programmes, home visits etc.”, Rozells noted.

However, he wondered if there are solutions to the problem that “lie beyond education”, given that the attitudes prevailing around the stratification of Singapore’s education system and students’ achievements appear to contribute to the inequity of outcomes.

“As teachers, we tell ourselves, and our students, that if only our “weak” students worked harder, they would do well. If we ourselves came from modest backgrounds, we hold ourselves up as role models about how anyone can do it (even if inequality was not as great back in the 70s or 80s when we were growing up).

“As parents, we pride ourselves on our children’s achievements, as evidence of their good upbringing, their good habits, their hard work and hope to high heaven that our dear darlings won’t have to mix with students from poor backgrounds.

“As good middle-class students, we pat ourselves on the back for our achievements, and scorn the weak kids struggling in their scruffy uniforms and wonder why they won’t just iron their clothes.

“As poor students, we’ve got so many reasons to not even try.

“The lie we tell ourselves is that the playing field is level, no one owes you a living, pull yourself up by your bootstraps etc.

“And after all, to complete the fiction, all we need to do is to parade that 1 taxi-driver-single-mother-living-in-a-one-room-rental-flat-student-yet-he-managed-to-get-PSC-scholarship and look now he’s a minister, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that anyone can make it in our system, just follow that rainbow.

“As teachers and parents, as citizens, are we ready [to] question what has always been done, and what we need to do if we are serious about building a fairer society?” He questioned.

Several netizens, in response, have pointed out a number of flaws in the methodology used to interpret the PISA scores, and that the data visualisation presented in Prof Sahlberg’s graph may not have accurately presented the PISA results:

A couple of netizens highlighted the need for a shift in the attitudes of Singaporeans towards students from less privileged backgrounds and whose circumstances might affect their academic performance:

Edited to include a discussion under Mark Rozells’ post regarding the findings.