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Posts Tagged ‘tuition

I normally wait for everyone and their grandmothers to have their say on the latest blip in the Singapore schooling radar. This time I waited for the uncles and aunties to weigh in as well.

The usual and time-honoured statements breached like whales, made a splash, and then returned to the deep. Also usual was the response of tuition centres.

Some tuition centres, particularly the chain and branded ones, responded to the Ministry of Educations (MOE’s) new policy of reducing academic exams by maintaining the status quo or providing purely extrinsic rewards. Case in point:

…parents whom he has spoken to were also largely in favour of keeping the centre’s in-house mid-year and end-of-year examinations, which are set by its tutors, even though the schools are removing such examinations for certain levels.

…tutors would turn an assignment into a mini-competition for students during class, with rewards such as snacks given at the end of the assignment to encourage good work.

There were also examples in the report that mentioned the names of centres that would offer or expand their offerings on enrichment. But since I do not wish to advertise their wares, I am not quoting them.

The tired excuse for doing these things: Tuition centre operators are giving in to what parents want. Never mind that these steer everyone in the direction that is opposite to MOE’s.

According to the same article, some tuition centres have embraced formative, non-graded assessment and feedback, and/or actually focus on remediation.

The exam reduction policy has yet to be implemented, but tuition centres have reacted. Some take advantage on what parents know and fear, and offer replacement tests. Others seem to focus on the learners.

Tuition has been called the shadow schooling system here. Like an actual shadow, you cannot actually get rid of it as long as we cast light on schooling. That said, some shadows distort and some are scary.

Cast a stronger light directly at the shadow and it disappears, perhaps taking away with it the associated fears. Just how enlightened and equipped are parents to critically examine what they are sold about tuition in is various forms?

It this tweet about “infective“ tuition did not sell you on tuition, then this ad for a tuition agency might.

Tuition ad: The right answer: We prepare your children not just for exams - but for life.

The ad claimed that the agency could prepare kids not just for exams, but also for life. To reassure parents, the agency claimed that it had “the right answer”. In the spectrum of schooling and life, this group had one colour to rule them all. This is shortcut schooling and parenting at its best!

Now, not all tuition is the same. There are honest and earnest educators who provide remedial tuition as coaches. They do not advertise on YouTube because 1) they do not have the revenue, and 2) they have a collective conscience.

Then there are the enrichment centres that have entry tests, formulaic approaches that sometimes contradict what teachers do in classes, and give the industry a bad name. They charge top dollar — because Singaporeans equate quality with cost — and they widen the gap in equitable access.

This may be one of the reasons why all Singapore students in mainstream schools will soon have access to the Student Learning Space (SLS). The SLS has already been touted as providing equal (not equitable) access to high quality resources.

Those that buy in to that idea are missing the point. Tuition in all its forms — remedial, enrichment, other variants — is not just about access to resources. It is about personalised attention and coaching, bragging rights, babysitting, taking shortcuts. It is about catching up, keeping pace, or leaving someone in your smoke.

Let us not oversell tuition as practiced here. Let us tell it like it is.

On the surface, this STonline article lets readers know that some tutors are taking their roles more seriously. They are seeking professional development to stay current.

Read the report more critically and “best practices” could raise an alarm. While there might be such practices in industry and business, we should be concerned if they belong in the areas of schooling and education.

I have reflected on why “best practices” is a misnomer, is a bad set of practices, and should not be co-opted in education.

In the context of tuition, can there really be “best” practices when there are different kinds of tuition? Is the group spearheading this move going to address all the different needs and contexts?

The tuition industry in all its forms has its critics and cynics. While it should be associated with help for all who need it, segments are also associated with highly selective agencies and entry tests. While it could focus on remediation or personalisation, it is also known for shortcuts and formularisation.

I am not advocating a lack of standards or guidelines. I am worried about the answer to this question: What if the “best practices” includes what is undesirable in tuition as practiced here in Singapore?

Two recent newspaper articles [1] [2] kept referring to one study that claimed that tuition did not have an impact on Singapore’s high PISA score. I question this research.

Today I reflect on how the articles might be focusing on a wrong question asked the wrong way: Does tuition impact Singapore’s PISA score?

It is a wrong question because it begs an oversimplistic “Yes” or “No” answer when the answer is likely “Depends”. There will be circumstances when tuition helps and when it does not.

Tuition is not a single entity. The are the sustained forms of remedial, enrichment, some combination of the two, or other forms. There are short interventions that focus on just-in-time test exam strategies. There are broad shot forms that deal with one or more academic subjects and there are formulaic forms that focus on specific subtopics and strategies.

Add to that messy practice the fact that a phenomenon like learning to take tests is complex and will have many contributing factors, e.g., school environment, home environment, learner traits, teacher traits, etc.

Wanting to know the impact of tuition, not just on PISA scores, but also on schooling and education in Singapore’s contexts are questions worth asking. A better way to ask one question might be: “How does tuition impact X (where X is the phenomenon)?”

This core question bracketed by: “What forms of tuition are there in Singapore?” and “What other factors influence the impact of this form of tuition?”

Methods-wise, the study would not just play the numbers game. Narratives flesh out and make the case for numbers or even explain what might seem counterintuitive.

We live in a post-truth world. You cannot believe everything you read online. You cannot take what you read offline or in newspapers at face value either.

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.

What was your reaction to this tweet?

I had a couple of reactions.

One was to simply tweet “OMG”, but that would have been underwhelming.

Another reaction was too long to tweet. All the ad needed was at least four more guys spouting “hip” tuition platitudes. Then the ad would look like the parody K-pop boy band group by Ryan Higa and Wong Fu Productions, Boys generally Asian (BgA).

Video source

My main reaction resulted this blog-based reflection: It is a sign of the times. The advertisement is a reminder of the battle to claim the minds and pockets of Singaporean parents.

Before I describe on that battleground, I need to point out how the sand is shifting under our feet.

The tenure of our previous Minister for Education has seen the better-late-than-never emphasis on character and values. While our MOE has never backed down on the academic chase for good grades, it took an informed and enlightened leader to start that journey.

Now even a cursory glance at media reports and a casual Google search will reveal Singapore’s overall stance on schooling and education. For example, just this week there was the rhetoric that our current schooling model will be “hopelessly outdated” in 20 years and how our children should learn from productive failure.

Boys (and girls) generally east Asian place a premium on academic results because of parental pressure. This stems from the belief that good grades make for better opportunities.

However, what some local research [example 1] [example 2] has revealed is that these opportunities are more available to some and less to others.

We have data to challenge our notion of meritocracy because social mobility is challenged by social gaps [news article].

One symptom of this social gap issue is the K-pop or Hong Kong style advertisements for tuition. To understand why this is the case, you need to play a reductionist numbers game.

You need the points to make the grade and you need them fast and formulaic, never mind if you do not actually learn anything of value. The service costs money, and the better and faster you want it, the more it will cost. Some can pay up. Others shut up.

Thankfully a our society tries not to leave any child behind. Self-help groups also offer tuition programmes. One example is Mendaki’s remedial tuition schemes. However, these cannot compete with the commercialisation of remedial and enrichment tuition.

On the surface, self-help tuition looks like a rusty bicycle while a well-known agency looks like a shiny Tesla. Both have teachers that want to help. Both share the same curricula but could have widely differing strategies and salaries. In the open market, tuition teachers and centres can try the latest strategies and technologies. The traditional groups tend do what they are only comfortable with.

Our mainstream schools cannot compete with commercial tuition agencies because they operate by a different model. The schools plod along with large class sizes, take part in curricula races with siloed subject areas, and are averse to risk. Enrichment classes by tuition agencies can afford to have more optimal student:teacher ratios, be more focused, and try whatever works.

This makes me wonder why we do not take advantage of what each does better than the other. If we insist on the overall model of content delivery and assessment by exams, then why not let tuition agencies be the classroom environment and schools the testing and grading one?

Perhaps that is too big a fantasy. So here is something more realistic: Schools could waste less time.

School authorities could start by studying how much time is wasted. They could measure how much time a child spends actually learning Fitbit-style during classes. They might be surprised how much time is wasted waiting for things to happen.

They could also analyse curricula and schedules for ineffective practices. One poor use of curriculum time is linear-independent design. This is where, say, ten academic areas operate independently instead of leveraging on where they naturally overlap. Imagine a vacation planning project that has language, mathematics, science, and values-education elements.

Now imagine teachers saying that is too much trouble to do even though wider world problems are multidisciplinary and have no clear solutions.

Another poor use of curriculum time is how much of it becomes “supplementary” lessons after school and during school vacations. This time is not for remediation; it is for normal classes held outside class time because class time was lost because of bad planning and implementation.

Now imagine school administrators getting defensive and citing interruptions due to public holidays, school events, and the need to do more things with the same amount of time.

Rise above all this and you might realise that the problem is the school bubble. Teachers and school operate in a world where the consequences of what they do are not immediate, so the urgency to change is not there. They do not take ownership of problems and blame everything outside that bubble.

Like it or not, schools have problems that originate within the bubble. We can do without excuses.

There is one thing good about the spikey hair on the tutors coiffured like K-pop stars. If more ads like the one @mrbrown highlighted appear in our collective consciousness, perhaps the spikes will pop that bubble.

This STonline article featured kids who were getting tuition years in advance of what they might be ready for. To be more precise, their parents were arranging enrichment tuition for their children to stay ahead whether their kids were ready or not.

I will not rant about the state of enrichment classes here as I have written about this sometimes ugly form of tuition before. I focus on one element of the article: The sample of three questions asked of students seeking Direct School Admission.

Three sample DSA questions.

Are these the best questions we can muster for DSA students? DSA is meant to not just focus on academic aptitude but also on values, attitudes, and character traits as well. Instead of waiting for interviews, portfolios, and observations, why not ask questions that matter?

I offer three questions of my own.

Question 1: You are a school prefect. You spot one student bullying another student outside of school. You realise that the bully is your best friend and the victim is a classmate. What do you do? Why?

Question 2: You were given $50 in cash as a birthday present from your grandparents. You decide to donate some, save some, and spend some. How much will you allocate for each purpose? Why?

Question 3: More and more of your classmates seem to be getting enrichment tuition. Consider Scenario A or Scenario B.

Scenario A: Your parents want you to have tuition every day after school. What will you say to your parents? Why?

Scenario B: You do not want to have tuition. How do you justify this decision to your parents?

The STonline article offered model answers to its questions. There are no fixed answers for mine. Instead, the focus is on values-based reasoning, critical and creative thinking, the clarity of communication, and a host of other skills.

Can you offer reasonable solutions to my questions? Can your children?

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