Monday, February 3, 2014

Sumptuary Laws - the MOE Edition

Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumptuariae leges) are laws that attempt to regulate permitted consumption… In the Late Middle Ages, sumptuary laws were instituted as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie of medieval cities, and they continued to be used for these purposes well into the 17th century.“ – Wikipedia entry

The Straits Times ran an article today on funding cuts for six independent schools, as well as requesting that schools moderate fund-raising activities.

I agree with Bertha Harian. The article was poorly reported and instead of informing the reader, left him or her with more questions.

It’s not hard to see where the motivation behind these cuts (and the accompanying loud but incoherent publicity) come from. Income and wealth inequality have become sensitive topics, and the government, in an effort to convince the citizenry that it’s behind the little guy (and hence not lose votes in the next election) is suddenly draping itself in socialist vestments.

Leaving aside how genuine the sentiment behind wanting to narrow inequities is, as opposed to merely a cynical exercise in electioneering, one really must tease apart how effective such measures are in achieving their purported goal. This post also aims to address other peripheral issues.

My thoughts:

1.       Even with official frowning over fund-raising for lavish new swimming pools and tennis courts, “good” schools will always find a way a differentiate themselves, just as the wealthy subverted sumptuary laws in centuries past. Latest example: five star hotels in China seeking to “de-star”themselves (but probably finding some other way to up the luxury ante) so that corrupt Chinese officials can continue to stay there. Gold leaf mooncakes are so passé.

Who knows what elite Singapore schools will spend on, now that conspicuous consumption is out?

I can think of a few ideas. I attended Anglo Chinese School in my salad days years ago on government largesse. I was in the school band for a year, and the set-up in the ACS band then was that new recruits had to sign up (and pay) for a few months of private group lessons with instructors. These lessons were held by section (e.g. clarinets, flutes, trumpets etc.)

The conductor for the band was an active member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (he played the trumpet), and the instructors were his colleagues from the SSO. While lessons were mandatory only for the first few months, we were strongly encouraged to continue having them on an ongoing basis to improve our abilities. I doubt any other secondary school band in Singapore back then (and perhaps even now) enjoyed the advantage of having musicians from the SSO as regular instructors for all their band members.

The lessons were paid for by students ($50 per student per month if I recall correctly). So, as far as I know, ACS didn’t finance the extra training. But that’s not to say ACS couldn’t have chosen to do so.

The experience of how the ACS band operated sure put the Singapore Youth Festival into perspective for me. Early on in life as a student, instead of knowing the SYF as a celebration of a well-rounded education, I instead learnt the importance of the role of money behind excellence and achievement. And school rankings needless to say.

(Post script: As a lower middle class student in the GEP paying just $12 a month in school fees, my father found it ridiculous that he had to pay $50 a month for private music lessons when education under the GEP was supposedly subsidized. There were a few ugly scenes in school, and after some wrangling between my parents and my teachers, to save myself embarrassment and long awkward conversations with my teachers, I left the band of my own accord and joined another CCA. On hindsight, this negative experience with money and education probably influenced me signing up for a government scholarship later in life.)

2.       Any curtailment in legacy admissions, which the article highlights as one of the measures to be imposed, is bound to elicit howls of protest or at the very least, grumbling from disgruntled alumni.

Which may not be a bad thing from schools’ perspective. Scarcity goods enjoy a premium. Expect even bigger and fatter donations from alumni parents anxious to get their kids into their alma mater. You know the Chicago song, “When you’re good to Mama…”? Exactly.

All this sort of makes the funding cuts and restrictions on fund-raising moot.

3.       So, what’s to be done if we really want to narrow inequalities in the educational system?

One way is to increase funding to lower ranked schools. One of the ironies in the Singapore educational system is that it is precisely the most advantaged students who receive the most funding, like the Gifted Education Program for instance. Although as a GEP alum I am grateful for the funding, the fact is that even by my time 20 years ago, the majority of the kids in my GEP class in ACS were indistinguishable from the regular ACS kids when it came to socio-economic background. I was one of the rare kids in my class who lived in an HDB flat, something really unusual in ACS. (I was odd in other ways too, such as walking to school and only entering the program in Secondary 1 instead of Primary 4, the so-called ‘supplementary intake’).

The article doesn’t go into specifics as to whether redistributing funding is what MOE is going to do going forward. A related measure is to make ‘bonus’ funding conditional on improving academic outcomes for incoming cohorts of students rather than on absolute achievement. This would favor schools with a lower base of achievement that prove that they can produce improved outcomes.

As for breaking open the “closed circles” that our elite schools have evolved into, encouraging kids from lower income households to apply to higher ranked institutions could be one solution. However, affirmative action or income diversity quotas may have very mixed results. Speaking as a formerlower income student in an elite institution, I can categorically state that psychologically, it’s tough to be a kid from a lower income household in a good school.

And I was one of the top students in my cohort. Without having private tuition which is ubiquitous today. Academics has always been low stress for me (compared to social interactions), but I can imagine that being lower income and struggling academically in an elite institution could be potentially an enormous source of stress.

My preferred strategy for leveling the playing field if I was in charge of setting education policy? Teachers. Sending the best teachers to the most disadvantaged schools.

A conversation with a teacher in my NS platoon during one of our interminably boring ICTs revealed to me that MOE scholars, the crème de la crème of the teaching profession, typically get assigned to the better schools after graduation. Again, this feeds back into the irony that the most advantaged students in our system receive the most and best resources, and you can’t get a better resource than a good teacher.

Ostensibly, the rationale for this is that MOE scholars are being groomed for leadership positions in the educational system and perhaps the larger civil service. So, exposure to opportunities is important for their career development, and what is true for students is just as true for the teachers. Good schools simply have more to offer teachers in terms of resources, interesting projects and resume-building opportunities.

While I understand that there is a master teacher career track for teachers who wish to specialize in *gasp* teaching, I don’t think it’s a terrible leap of imagination to realize that between the management and the teaching track, one track enjoys far greater prestige and money. Ergo, that’s where the talent gravitates to.

Which is why the Equity Project in New York City is so interesting. In this charter school, teachers are paid USD125,000 per year, twice as much as other public school teachers, and the idea is that the quality of the teaching talent will make a real difference in student outcomes These teachers are literally a ‘dream team’ – the Physical Education teacher was Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer. Given the longitudinal nature of educational outcomes, it’s hard to know if this experiment will pan out the way its supporters expect it to. But it certainly bears watching.


Justalittlemore said...

have enjoyed reading through your blog today. Honest words and fresh perspective:)

Anonymous said...

Based on my own observations as a MOE scholar after leaving NIE, MOE scholars do not in fact get sent to the best schools for their first posting. Most teachers are posted based on where they live and what level of education (primary, secondary, JC) they are intended for.

That being said, there are a few quirks of the system that might make it seem that MOE scholars get sent to better schools.

1) To my knowledge, no MOE scholar has ever been sent to teach in a primary school for their first posting.

2) Given that some scholars return with MA-level qualifications, they are likely to be sent to teach in JCs, which might qualify as 'better schools' simply because JCs cater only to the upper quartile.

3) First posting is not a good gauge of where scholars go, because it only lasts 2-3 years. An enterprising teacher, if he is unsatisfied with his posting, is likely to either be helicopter'd out of his current position due to high performance, or he can apply on his own merit to change posting. Few scholars remain in their school of first posting longer than 2-3 years.

4) Linking "best teachers" to "MOE scholars" is probably not a good bet. The best teachers I've worked with aren't scholars, they are career teachers. If you want the lower-performing schools to get the best teachers, they should receive a higher proportion of Senior Teachers, not scholars.

5) As far as I understand things, MOE scholars don't typically remain teachers for long enough to develop the same deep expertise as a senior teacher. Those committed to the ministry will go on to management and leadership, probably because they are dissatisfied with the system and find themselves in a position to improve it. Those who aren't (and I'd be interested in finding out how many scholars actually remained in service after their bond expires) will leave as soon as they are able.

Melbourne said...

Your perspective on elitism, and possibly your worldview itself, is probably coloured by being an ACS boy.

Keep in mind that GEPs were able to choose which schools they were posted to, so there's probably a selection effect there (ACS has strong links to the business community). Hence the effects of elitism may be magnified in your case.

I was an RI GEP in around the same cohort and we had plenty (at least 1/3 to 1/2) of middle-income students.

I actually agree with you that most of what the Singapore government is doing is posturing for votes. Where we obviously differ is that this isn't a problem to me.

The irony is that the opportunities Singapore's education system offers low/middle income students is second to none.

To this day the top boy from every neighborhood school still makes it into RI. Every kid has an equal shot at the GEP. And IQ tests are not easy to game.

It amuses me that Singaporeans keep harping on inequality without understanding the cultural context from which the meme spawned.

Why do you think inequality is such a big issue in the West? Precisely because governments have been so inefficient at providing basic services such as education. And your solution is more government intervention?

Finally, as you know gifted students have special needs.

Denying them additional funding in the name of "equality" would be an educational disaster.

Melbourne said...

Re: Equity project.

I wonder what the teachers unions have to say about that. Charter schools are anathema to them.

mjuse said...


If you were GEP at the same time that I was GEP, you would know that there were only 2 choices for secondary schools for GEP boys then: ACS or RI.

The only selection effect that applied then was that most, but not all, of the ACS GEP cohort had PSLE scores that did not qualify them to enter RI. I guess you couldn’t have realized that since your worldview was “RI colored” instead of “ACS colored”.

Oh, and by the way, this supposedly perspective-on-elitism-colored-by-ACS alum also counts several GEP alumni from RI and RGS as friends and peers.

"To this day the top boy from every neighborhood school still makes it into RI."

"Every kid has an equal shot at the GEP. And IQ tests are not easy to game."

This is such a ridiculous statement. There are strong arguments for IQ tests being culture and language-biased. Those verbal word analogy questions for instance. a child from an English-speaking family home with access to lots of books and involved parents will almost certainly do better on an IQ test than one without.

“Finally, as you know gifted students have special needs. Denying them additional funding in the name of "equality" would be an educational disaster.”

In my post, I mentioned redistributing funding so that lower-ranked schools can receive more, but I never said funding for the GEP should be cut. The supposition is ridiculous anyway; you could eliminate the GEP and cost savings would be barely a blip since the number of GEP students is small.

That aside, it’s inconsistent to claim that IQ tests can’t be gamed while stating that failing to meet the special needs of high IQ kids will result in a “disaster”. If you have the utmost faith that the truly gifted kids out there can make it to the GEP notwithstanding challenging family environments (equal shot remember?), then you don’t have a leg to stand on in stating that they have special needs that have to be met, or else.

Conversely, if you suppose that no amount of coaching can help regular kids get into the GEP, what kind of special needs for GEP kids are we talking about anyway? Are you saying GEP kids have a unique capacity to learn that other kids don’t?

Or are you saying that the IQ test administered is such a perfect instrument for picking up unique talent (news flash: it isn't)?

It’s attitudes like yours that give GEP kids that elitist label that none of us want.