Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Meritocratic Elite

Kway Teow Man makes an interesting case about Singapore's meritocratic education system. Molly Meek also has a few things to say about our vaunted education system.

So I guess now it's my turn to weigh in and give my two cents worth. Don't blame me for being slow. ST now costs money to read online, and I'm a poor grad student. Where am I supposed to find the money?

I do think that the resources a school has plays a certain role in the nurturing of a mind. Imagine a school library with really good books for you to do reserach with and one that maybe has 10 shelves of books from the 1980s and if you're lucky a few from the 1990s. Or where a school that has 1 computer lab has 20 outdated Pentium 2 computers versus a school with 2 computer labs with 35 up-to-date Pentium 4 computers each. While it still requires good teachers and motivated students, a motivated student in a poorer school might find some restrictions due to facilities.

Another issue might be teacher quality. While both "independent," "autonomous," or "government" schools tend to draw their teachers from the same pool (NIE graduates and a few foreign talents), "independent" schools have a much more relaxed hiring proceedure, while "government" schools have to go through a rather red-taped procedure to obtain a teacher. Furthermore, it is my belief that "independent" school teachers may have less paperwork to deal with since the school is nominally under MOE control and directives, while "government" school teachers are normally swamped with paperwork. Having more time to do lesson plans and teach makes a big difference in quality of teaching. Also many teachers quit their jobs because the immense amount of non-teaching duties makes them lose sight of their original noble goal to teach.

Also the extra money that "independent" schools have, makes it easier to "poach" good teachers away from other schools with better pay and benefits. Again I stress that it also depends on the individual motivation of the students.

As for the permanence of streaming, I agree with KT Man. It can be a very demoralising life journey since the odds are stacked against you. It is easier for a student to slip from the "higher" streams down to the "lower" streams, but not vice versa. Allow me to illustrate:

Timmy is a young boy, smart, intelligent, but rather lazy and not very good at Chinese. He is in a "government" primary school.

He stakes his streaming exam and gets into the EM3 band because his family does not speak mandarin (they're a Hokkien speaking family) and are too poor to afford a tuition teacher (Dad works two jobs, taxi operator and security guard and mom works part-time as a cleaner). His home environment is not suitable for studying since he has 2 other younger siblings.

At P6 he doesn't do so well because of his lack of motivation to study. He ends up in the Normal (Technical) Stream, which means a very very slim chance of getting to do the Ordinary Levels exam. Instead at age 16 he takes the Normal Levels exam and gets an average grade. So Timmy is off to ITE.

At his local ITE, Timmy discovers a flair for computer type jobs, which he never got a chance to do in his secondary school because the labs were always full and computers were too old. He excels and at 19 graduates top of his class. Now he applies to a Polytechnic and gets in. He also has to defer his National Service again.

During his poly years, his lecturers notice that Timmy is in fact very good at computer programming. He completes his Diploma at age 22, at the top 5% of his class. Timmy decides to apply to NTU, but has to do his NS first. At 25 Timmy enter NTU's second year, and graduates with honours at the age of 28 and enters the workforce.

Now compare this to Johnny. His dad is a regional vice president for a big accounting firm and his mom is an assistant general manager of a local shipping firm.

Johnny is equally lazy and unmotivated as Timmy in primary school. He gets tons of tuition and has his own quiet study to do work. He also doesn't need to pitch in and do housework , which Timmy does, when he gets home.

Thanks to rote learning and some exam tips from his tuition teacher, Johnny ends up in the EM2 band. His parents worrying about his future, sends him to Chinese camp during the holidays and doubles his tuition teachers.

As the PSLE Johnny does quite well enough thanks to the tips his tuition teachers gave him. But he fails to make the cut to get into an elite "independent" school. His father being an alumnus of the said school and a big donor, talks to a few friends of his on the school's board and its administration, and they find an extra seat for Johnny in their incoming Express class. With their brand spanking new computer labs and enough equipment for every child, young Johnny discovers that he has a flare for computers. His parents are supportive and send him to computer class outside of school. At the same time they find him tutors for his other weaker subjects.

Johnny doesn't have the right grades on his provisional exams to provisionally get into the JC with a strong computing program. Dad gets a few friends to write letters to that JC and along with some wealthy friends of his, donates a new chandelier for the JC's new performance annex. So Johnny finds himself at the JC for his first three months. Johnny does well for his O levels at age 16. Thanks once again to rote learning and exam taking strategies from his tutors.

At age 18 Johnny exels and does well on his A levels, also with some help from his tutors. He serves NS and leaves at age 21. His father sends him to the US to learn at one of the best schools in the world (which Johnny of course qualified for on his own, he's like Timmy now, very well motivated). And Johnny enters the workforce at age 25 with a BSc summa cum laude.

Three years later Johnny gets a new colleague by the name of Timmy.

I know. This is a long illustration, but i'm trying to show that having wealthy parents can make a difference between children of the same calibre who discover themselves later in life. Of course I exaggerate alot, and I also leave out a lot of things like friends and influences. If Timmy had gotten demoralised along the way he'd not have gone all the way. Or if Johnny sucked so much that all of his daddy's money and friends couldn't save him.

Coming from an upper-middle class family will definetely afford you more opportunity than coming from a poorer family. Coming from a filthy rich family ups the ante even more in your favour. I should know, I come from an upper-middle class family. I always accepted my grades and did the best i could with the grades i had gotten (through my own sheer lack of motivation), even opposing my parents at times. I remember when I was a kid, I did well enough in my PSLE and missed the "Advanced" stream cut off by 3 points (which actually is a good thing for me, my Chinese sucked ass). I went back to my old school, because I felt loyalty and also wanted to stick by my friends. My parents wanted me to go to ACS. They had actually secured a place for me there. Thank goodness I passed up on Slytherin ACS. I remember I told them squarely that I would not budge, and they gave way (I suspect because I appealed to my dad's sense of history; he's an alumnus of my old school).

At my provisional grades, I could have gotten into Catholic Junior College (which was where I wanted to go), but my parents once again secured a place for me at a "better" Junior College. I seriously didn't want to go, but when you're 17 and your parents threaten to cut off your allowance, there's little choice here. So off I went and thankfully I got a good enough O level grade where my parents didn't have to pull those strings to keep me there. Those two years were kind of miserable years.

Is it necessarily fair? No, not really. Is it meritocratic? To an extent. Like KT man says, it does offer children from poorer households the opportunity if they are properly motivated or just naturally talented. It's exactly like the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy at the national level (local level appointments are different). Rich families were the ones who could afford to train their sons, but sometimes poor villages (yes it took a whole village) would sponsor one child and the child would suceed.

The deck is naturally stacked in the favour of the rich, simply because they can get access to better educational resources, be it schools, computers or tuition. I know it's not entirely meritocratic, since I am a beneficiary of "influence" and know of other cases where that happens.

In life there are winners and losers, economics makes that very clear. The goal is to make it so that the gains outweigh the losses , so as to create a net positive effect for society as a whole. Education is Singapore is far more equal than education in the US. The deck is less stacked against the poor in Singapore than it is in the US. Part of it has to do with the fact that alot of tertiary education in the US is private, while in Singapore they are all subsidised. Another has to do with the lack of uniformity in control of education in the US, as opposed to Singapore. So the education, and consequently, wealth gap in the US increases, while Singapore's sort of hovers along or even decreases (I am at this time too lazy to call up data from the last 4 census years to prove that fact).

As for old boys' network, I tend to think that Singapore schools are not as good in that when compared with US schools. The networking here is amazing. Singaporeans are still learning the ropes of networking and alumni relations. In the US, I am constantly reminded of my fraternal links (with my fraternity) and also where i went to school (my alma mater). My current school even posts job listings on its listserv so that both graduated and graduating students can find jobs. The theory is to help us do as well as we can possibly do, and that in turn will serve the school's reputation. It'll also help when it comes around to ask for alumni donations.

So if you're poor and live in Singapore, your one great hope of climbing up the social ladder is to do well in school or marry up (if you know a rich heiress let me know).


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