The MOE System Has Churned Out PISA Top Scorers, But Is It Really Heading in the Right Direction?

By Joanne Poh

Looks like all those tuition hours paid off when Singaporean topped the PISA test in all three categories—reading, mathematics and science. While some people muttered about the sacrifices kids have made in terms of their physical and mental health, PM Lee was pleased as punch about the results and declared the “ministry is moving in the right direction”.

But hey wait a minute, from all that public debate in the past few years, you’d think we were moving in the wrong direction and people were trying desperately to convince the ministry to change course.

Here’s why, despite the PISA top scores, assuming that MOE is doing great can be misleading, and why continuing to drill students in hopes of topping the charts every year may not actually be a good thing.

The perception remains that if you don’t do well at school, you’re screwed

The PSLE has been a huge thing in every Singaporean’s life since forever. Ask anybody born in the 1950s and later what their PSLE aggregate was, and they’ll be able to tell you with laser-like accuracy exactly how much they got over 300.

Now, why would people remember how much they got for some exam they took when they were freaking 12? That’s because the PSLE can actually have a significant influence on a person’s future path.

Sure, there are always outliers who did poorly for the PSLE and subsequently graduated from university and are in high paying jobs. Likewise, there are people got 260+ in the PSLE and then slacked off and are now competing with the riffraff for mediocre jobs.

But for many, their PSLE scores do put them in a better or worse position to achieve a high paying job, all at the tender age of 12.

If you get streamed into normal tech, it’s not impossible to make it to uni, but it’s going to be a lot harder and take a longer time. Conversely, if you make it into a top 10 school, while it’s no guarantee you’ll end up in a high paying career if you don’t work hard, it’s more likely as you’ll be surrounded by high achievers who’ll push you to study harder, many of whom will be from rich families who might prove to be useful contacts later in life.

The fact that all the academically strong students are filtered out and placed in the same few schools, while those who do badly are grouped together, means it’s a lot harder to break the mould you’ve been forced into.

The recent changes to the PSLE have been a response to this issue. From 2021, the PSLE scoring system will be changed so students are not benchmarked against their peers with such extreme granularity.

Instead, they’ll be given scores that lie in broad bands. In addition, scores will not be the only thing determining which school students get posted to—how high up on their list of choices the school is will also play a part.

However, it’s unlikely these measures will do much to ease parents’ obsession with “good schools” in the short-term.

Academic success is a big factor for social mobility

Most Singaporeans were told by their parents that if they didn’t study hard they’d end up becoming road sweepers.

That’s very telling about the tendency of society to devalue jobs which are not high-paying. Political correctness aside, the fact remains that if you do end up becoming a road sweeper, you’re pretty much screwed financially.

You see, Singapore is not a country where you can earn a liveable wage doing a menial, low-paying job. The real reason F&B businesses are finding it difficult to to recruit local service personnel is not because locals “shun” the jobs, but because life will be a real struggle if they’re stuck at that salary forever. Lower income workers’ salaries also rise much slower than those at the middle and upper percentiles.

For those stuck in low-paying jobs, moving to a town or city isn’t an option given Singapore’s size. It’s thus rather understandable that parents get anxious when their kids don’t do well at school.

Our education system churns out high scorers, but discourages innovation

We already know the Singapore education system is great at churning out children skilled at taking tests. That’s why those kids aced the PISA test, isn’t it?

But it’s not so great at preparing students for the new economy—one where innovation and disruption are key drivers. As much as the government is hoping that “the next Google or Facebook or Alibaba will come from Singapore”, the current education system does the opposite, by encouraging kids to play it safe.

It’s set up to ensure students don’t take exams lightly, with streaming starting in Primary 4 at the age of 10, and the high-stakes PSLE when students are just 12. At each stage, if you fall off the ladder and get streamed into EM3 or Normal tech, the road ahead gets a little tougher.

At the World Education Leadership Summit 2015, an expert cautioned that Singapore’s current education system, which prioritises testing, is going to produce test-takers, not innovators. And the Public Service Commission’s chairman noted that many of the PSC candidates he interviewed—the cream of the crop, if you will, are all channeling themselves into the same safe jobs and are generally not very creative or imaginative.

Those who don’t do well at school often neglect proper financial planning

Just as those who do well at school often feel the pressure to enter high paying jobs and not bring shame upon their families, those who do not manage to thrive in the school system are at risk of “giving up”. The environment at some schools is less than ideal, and students have reported being told by teachers that they shouldn’t try to take humanities subjects like literature since they “wouldn’t do well”.

Recently, a bunch of local celebrities revealed their PSLE scores in order to show kids that a low score doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. This exercise was designed to counter the fact that poor academic performance, even at a tender age, often signals to children that they’re doomed for life.

In the world of adults, those who didn’t make it through the education system unscathed and are resigned to working in low paying jobs often neglect proper financial planning. Save money? I earn so little, how to save? Invest? That’s for rich people, they say.

Unfortunately, it is precisely these people who should be planning more carefully for their financial future, since they have a smaller buffer than those with higher salaries.

This article was first published over at MoneySmart blog on 22 December 2016. It is reproduced with permission.

About The Author (Joanne Poh)

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.


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