Being Singaporean,  Bitching

The Big PSLE Freakout

This is beginning to be as sensitive as talking about religion. And it’s getting worse and worse every year.

Then there are all these positive initiatives getting people to share stories and PSLE T-scores in the name of telling Nintendo DS-denying parents grades don’t matter (she’s since learned an important lesson: be careful what you say in front of a journalist).

First: I love that this is happening, I think it’s important that it’s happening, but I’m sorry this is happening.

Second: please, please stop for a minute. We’re making things worse. All these hundred stories from a hundred voices about defining and achieving success a hundred ways, all these I-did-well-despite-my-studies-so-can-your-child-now-let’s-group-hug hullabaloo, all this is as useful to our PSLE-worshipping parents as telling a person with depression to try some exercise (and in case you think that’s okay, it’s not).

This is how the Democrats lost the US Presidential Election. It’s how parents unwittingly lose their connections with our children. It’s how we lose people to suicide.

We don’t help anyone by talking about what you’ve done, how I can do what you do, how it’s the right way; I’m not you, so stop making yourself look so obnoxious, because you’re starting to sound like the person whose mindset you’re trying to change. As parents who have gone through our children’s first years deciphering their cries and behaviour in a bid to lock in their mealtime/potty-time/bedtime routines, one would think we’d understand that it doesn’t really help when we tell our kids, “Look at the boy at the next table, so well-behaved”, or even, “Look at me, why can’t you be like me?” (To be honest, the Wife and I haven’t gotten that right either.) But what does help is when we listen and observe our own child, then learn how best to do life together.

So listen.

The KiasuParents gang—the parents that really need the help, us, me—have the impression, probably from going through it ourselves some 25-30 years ago, that the PSLE T-score is the first major measure of academic efficiency across the education eco-system—students, parents, educators right up to the Ministry itself—and to us, it’s been so deeply entrenched in the system that up until 2014 an Education Minister has said it won’t be abolished (even though MOE will be replacing the T-score with a new banding scheme in 2021, a potential whole new can of worms on its own).

We hear murmurs about how teachers are still ranked against each other using the class T-score aggregate as a key performance indicator, or how schools still have to depend on T-score aggregates to report faculty performance (every school a good school but how good still has to be measured by the overseeing authority). After primary school, secondary schools, even DSA schools, use T-score cut-off points to filter their student applications. T-scores still play a part in assessment of bursary and study grant disbursements. And T-scores are used to sort incoming secondary school students into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams—the streams aren’t just a matter of academic division to allow tailored teaching, learning and resource allocation based on academic ability, but inadvertently a division of social classes as well… and that’s how teens lose their childhood so quickly.

For as long as the PSLE has been implemented into our system, this T-score has remained in our minds as the most tangible of performance indicators that the system can use, and can’t easily be let go as much as everyone wants it eliminated.

It’s far from the full story with our education system, though, as the teachers, principals, administrators nd policymakers working in the system will read this and start tearing their hair out saying “You’ve got it all wrong, you ninnies!” In fact, the MOE has been trying to de-emphasise PSLE with specialised schoolsApplied Learning and Learning for Life programmes, elective modules, how secondary school allocations are also based on portfolio presentations and interviews, how bursaries are also evaluated based on student conduct (which presents its own problems). Educator/school performance evaluations conducted by the ministry vary from school to school, but at its fairest, they’re based on sophisticated formulas of Bell curve positioning, teaching efficacy, CCA performance, student background mix, student well-being, leadership quality, financial planning ability, overall health of the student body… T-score aggregation, if it’s even used, is just one fish in a much larger school. These solutions are far from perfect, of course (for example, the DSA programme can be gamed to get academically sound kids through to their parents’ preferred schools, and denying places to kids who actually deserve it), but the much bigger problem the ministry has is finding a way to communicate this to the parental masses without us glazing over and falling asleep in class.

Then last Thursday, a thread started by a rather good-looking dude who reminds me of John Molina if he got a PhD is making it look like PSLE T-scores do determine career tracks for a lot of us.

Now, if you’re from the #gradesdontmatter side, you’ll see that all that T-score-and-occupation talk doesn’t matter because people are content enough with their own lives to not bother about the correlation (or lack thereof). But the people who do scrutinise grades, the same people that the contentment message should really be hitting, will be looking at all your grades, and judging all of you, because there is a pattern that can be drawn from the comments—and you probably can see it as well—that the higher the commenter’s T-score, the higher the commenter’s career is flying. You can even see the “streaming”: the under-200 level, between 200 and 250, and the over 250s.

Call it generalising, but consider those who aren’t sharing their T-scores and occupations because of Dr. Khairudin’s thread. On the one hand, the ones who’ve actually scored high and are doing phenomenally at their careers will feel they’d just be seen as humblebragging. There’s also the inadequate ones; all this sharing is also creating pockets of insecurity among the people who are just looking on and not sharing: “I scored the same/higher, why haven’t I done as well?” I felt the same way looking at the comments section, and as encouraging as I see the number of comments and shares on Dr. Khairudin’s post, I got the feeling quite a bit more are reacting the same way I did. And I don’t even remember my own PSLE T-score (and I can’t find my primary school report book).

Look. I know you guys mean well. But like I told another advocate group before (and I do hope the group took that to heart at that inaugural dialogue session last Saturday), we should take some time to refine what message we want to send out to those we want to engage with before embarking on storytelling campaigns such as these, because the stories that are being told right now, while commendable, aren’t necessarily the kinds of stories that are all that useful for your intended audience. And please don’t use the traction gained in your efforts, the amount of likes, comments and shares as a gauge on how successful you believe your endeavours to be. It’s confirmation bias, and that’s dangerous in our climate of skeptics.

If you want to change mindsets, understand all this first before you try and bulldoze your opinion into us, because none of this is actually assuring anyone that grades don’t matter,  other than those that already know that grades don’t matter. You’re just making those that don’t subscribe to this belief not want to listen, much less talk to you.

Listen first to those you seek to help, then help them. And if you listen well enough, it might actually dawn on you that this discussion shouldn’t even be about education. #plottwist #jengjengjeeennng



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