Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Road to Mediocrity

Here's today's front page news in Today:

No more naming of top students for national exams
Move in line with recognising students' holistic development and all-round excellence, says Ministry of Education

SINGAPORE - Amid the national angst over the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - and the Government's constant assurance that every school is a good school - the Ministry of Education (MOE) will stop its practice of announcing the top-scoring students in the release of all national examinations results, starting with the PSLE results tomorrow.

This means that the PSLE, N- and O-Level results will be released to the media in a manner similar to that of the A-Level results, with the focus on the performance of the whole cohort.

The practice of naming the top student for each ethnic group will also be scrapped.

The media will also be encouraged to highlight the performances of students from a variety of schools who have done well not only in the exams but also in other aspects as well.

Responding to media queries, an MOE spokesperson said yesterday: "MOE and SEAB (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board) will no longer list the top-scoring students in the release of all national examinations results."

She added: "This is in line with the importance of recognising our students for their holistic development and all-round excellence, and to balance the over-emphasis on academic results."

Nevertheless, she stressed that this "does not mean that academic achievement will no longer be celebrated". Students who ace the exams will still be recognised through Edusave Awards and scholarships, and schools may continue to celebrate their pupils' achievements, the spokesperson said.

"Through the change, we hope to foster a better balance in emphasis and help parents and students understand that academic performance is just one aspect of a student's overall development and progress. Each student deserves to be commended for his efforts and progress."

The move could cause some primary schools to have a last-minute rethink on how they are going to laud their pupils' academic achievements tomorrow.

At MacPherson Primary, for instance, its top three students and their PSLE T-scores would traditionally be announced to all the pupils and parents present to collect the results.

Principal Rostinah Mohamad Said said come tomorrow, the school will still announce their top students but their results will not be publicised. "We will also mention about other non-academic achievements such as leadership qualities so as to signal to parents the importance of holistic development," she said.

Nevertheless, Yishun Primary Principal Chan Kwai Foong said his school will not depart from its tradition of announcing its top three students and their letter grades. "It is only fair to recognise the children who performed well," said Ms Chan, adding that she also always commend the entire Primary Six cohort for having done their best for the exams.

A teacher, who has produced many PSLE top scorers in her 20-year career, welcomed the MOE's move, although she noted that the ministry's past practice of publicising the PSLE top scorers brings "a lot of glory and pride" to the schools.

Whether the move will alleviate the stress on students sitting for PSLE remains to be seen, she said. Parents are very resourceful and the information on the top PSLE scores will eventually be circulated, she pointed out.

Ms Samantha Chng, 38, whose son took the PSLE this year, felt that high stakes will continue to be placed on the national exams for 12-year-olds, as long as the scores are used to decide which secondary schools the pupils go to.

The MOE's latest move comes after it revamped the Singapore Youth Festival such that schools will no longer compete for awards. While Ms Chng wondered if the MOE was too overzealous in its bid to reduce competition among pupils and schools, Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, felt that such moves are in the right direction.

On the changes to the way PSLE results will be announced, Mr Lim said: "MOE is trying to signal that children can still be talented in other areas apart from academics but there is a limit to what MOE can do, parents must act upon it themselves."

Link to Todayonline: Click here

There will be no more awards for Singapore Youth Festival and there will be no more publicity for top students in the PSLE.  These are some of the measures that the Ministry of Education has taken to give a more "holistic" picture to exams and competitions.

One of my kids studies in NUS High School of Mathematics and Science which is traditionally a school that does not do well in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF).  Another kid of mine is in another school which traditionally does exceedingly well at the Festival.  I'm talking only about the String Ensemble Competition since both my kids play string instruments in their schools.  As everyone knows, NUS High is a specialised school with very few students.  They tend to excel in Mathematics and Science but they aren't really that good when it comes to music.  And it's not their fault.  There are very few students to begin with and it's not easy to find from this small pool of students enough boys and girls who are talented in string instruments to make up an ensemble.  The fact that they are willing to participate in the Festival despite their inadequate number testifies to their strength of character.  When they appear on stage for the SYF competition, you can hear a gasp of surprise from the audience because there are so few of them and that will be followed by a thunderous applause more out of sympathy because everyone knows they can't possibly do well.

Unlike NUS High which welcomes any student who can hold a musical instrument, my other kid's school is extremely stringent in its selection of students for the ensemble.  The students have to go for a rigorous audition and they are very carefully selected.  The preparation for the SYF is extremely back-breaking.  Students who fail to meet the standard expected are axed from the competition.  Failure to attend just one of its many practice sessions results in immediate expulsion from the competition.  I can tell because when both kids were preparing for the competition, my kid from NUS High always went home early while the other almost lived in the school with countless rehearsals that stretched into the night.

When NUS High gets a bronze award which is really a sympathy award, everyone is jubilant.  The school gives each participant a special certificate of recognition.  As an aside, I should mention that NUS High is indeed an excellent school and the support the students get from the principal is incredible.  But there was one year when the school of my other child got a Gold award at SYF and everyone was close to tears.  The reason was they wanted to get the Gold with Honours award.  Two years later (the competition is held once every two years), they got their Gold with Honours and they felt vindicated!

What I want to illustrate from this is just as in the field of education, not everyone can be at the top of everything.  But top achievers must always be given the accolade and recognition because, well, they are brilliant and they work hard.  A nation that has excellence as its goal must laud excellence.

The students themselves are very supportive of others who do better than themselves.  I've been to concerts held by the string ensemble from my son's school and I have seen the support given by NUS High's ensemble members who attend the concert.  They are genuinely effusive in their praise of the performance by that other school.  I have also been to concerts in NUS High and I have seen ensemble members from my son's school and they too are supportive of the performers in NUS High.  Recently, I posted in my blog about RI's superb achievement even in non-academic areas such as debating and an RI debater corrected my error when I said that Singapore was represented by only RI boys.  He pointed out that there was a Hwa Chong boy in the team.  You may want to read that post and the comments here.

You see, there is no jealousy among the boys and girls.  They generally encourage and support one another.  Why then is there a need to play down on the publicity given to top students who really excel, whether it's education or music?

It all boils down to the parents.  Many parents are of the view that they MUST get their kids into a school that does extremely well in a particular area.   What they fail to understand is that the PSLE is an excellent and time-tested gauge of which secondary school a kid should go to.  A kid who goes to a school not suited for him will do worse even if the school generally produces good results.  We should not bite off more than we can chew.

These parents clamour for a few things.  One of them is to have the PSLE scrapped or revamped.  Others call for the opening up of top schools to mediocre students.  As I have already shown in my earlier post, you can't do that without turning a top school into a mediocre school, in which case, the same parents wouldn't want their kids into such a school.  You can't have it both ways.  Now, the Ministry has decided that there'll be no publicity given to top students.

Top students will still be top students.  Publicity of top students only serves to give inspiration to the average and weaker students who will then try to emulate these top students.  It gives students in Singapore something to aim for, some goal to pursue and it encourages hard work.  It gives impetus for further improvement and it's a booster to weaker and lazier students to keep the nose to the grindstone.  Singapore should not apologise for focussing on excellence because this is what has put on the world map not just of academia but other fields too.  Recently, an NUS High boy won the world's top mathematics prize.  An RI boy won it for Chemistry.  As I have mentioned in my previous blog post, a group of RI boys won the World Schools Debating Championship held in Dundee.  These are top world prizes and it is no mean feat for Singapore to achieve it when you consider how tiny our population is.

I fear that all the new measures will take away our edge on the world stage.  We should give more publicity to top students so that the rest of us can buck up and have these students as our inspiration.  There will always be envious parents with a dog-in-the-manger mentality who may suggest that there should be no top schools because their own kids can't get in anyway and there should be no publicity given to top students because their kids will never make it to the limelight.  It is for the government to take stock of what we have built up for ourselves and decide whether we are willing at this point in time to please just a few loud and jealous parents, forget our success story and take the road to mediocrity.

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