Another dot in the blogosphere?

Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?

Posted on: December 9, 2016

I wrote the title using the Betteridge law of headlines. Such a headline almost always leads to no as the answer.

I write this in response and reflection to this STonline opinion piece, Kids with tuition fare worse.

An academic analysed PISA data from 2012 and concluded that students who had tuition:

  1. Came from countries where parents placed a premium on high-stakes examinations.
  2. Were likely to come from more affluent households.
  3. Performed 0.133 standard deviations worse than their counterparts who did not and after adjusting for “students’ age, gender, home language, family structure, native-born status, material possessions, grade-level and schools, as well as parents’ education levels and employment status”.

So does the third point not counter the Betteridge law of headlines? That is, I asked “Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?” and the answer seemed to be yes instead of no.

A standard deviation value tells us that the scores of tuition receivers varies relatively little from a mean score. There should be some students with tuition above that mean and others below it, but the scores are tightly clustered around that mean. Furthermore, just how practically significant is 0.133 standard deviations?

The practical reality is that the answer varies. Treated as a faceless corpus of data for statistical analysis, the answer might be yes. Take individual cases and you will invariably get yes, no, maybe, depends, not sure, sometimes yes, sometimes no, and more.

More important than the statistic are the possible reasons for why students with tuition might perform worse than their counterparts without. The article mentioned:

  • They are already weak in the academic subjects they receive tuition for.
  • Forced to take tuition, they might grow to dislike the subject.
  • Tuition recipients become overly dependent on their tuition teachers.


There are at least three other questions that the article did not address. The questions that have social significance might include:

  1. What kind of tuition did the students receive (remedial, extra, enrichment, other)?
  2. If the tuition is the remedial type and the kids are already struggling or disadvantaged, why do we expect them to do as well as or better than others?
  3. Why must the comparison be made between the haves and have-nots of tuition, particularly those of the remedial sort, when the improvement should be a change at the individual level?

The article hints at tuition that is of the enrichment, or better-the-neighbours sort. However, students get tuition for other reasons. The original purpose of tuition was remediation for individuals or small groups when schools dropped the ball thanks to large class enrollments.

Tuition is not a single practice and is sought for a variety of reasons — from babysitting to academic help — and needs to be coded and analysed that way.

If the point of the article was to dissuade parents from having tuition for its own sake or for competition, then I am all for that message.

On the other hand, if the point was to actually help each child be the best they can be academically, then a comparison — even one that says tuition does not help — is not helpful. Some kids might benefit from individualisation and close attention that remedial tuition affords.

So my overall response to my own question “Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?” is that it does not matter if each child and learning are the centre of any effort.

1 Response to "Does tuition lead to lower PISA scores?"

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