Tuesday, August 03, 2004

that education post i promised

i still haven't written that post on education, have i? well -- some preliminary thoughts to get me/you going (though who knows, this preliminary thoughts thing might just turn into a whole post) [ed: it did]: many people know that education is one of my big Issues that i'm willing to go on about just about forever. with good reason, too, i think -- what kind of education system a country has produces the kind of society that it will have in the future, and if you get your kids young you mould them -even if you don't intend to- you shape them, you set the outline of their lives before them. it's important, then, that you get your education system right, not just for the sake of the future of the country, but -at least for me- more importantly for the sake of the children you are changing.

lest we forget, the Singaporean education system has for the most part been highly successful, which i think is something that we didn't take into account nearly enough when we were discussing it during the seminar. most kids emerge from this system with the ability to read, write and do math; most kids emerge from the system with skills that will serve them well through life, even if their lives inhabit a rather limited scope -car mechanics, air-conditioner repairmen, that sort of deal. it takes great care of the majority of the kids, even if it does rather fall down on the job at the top and bottom end of the spectrum.

but that is not to say that it's perfect. far from it. and that, my friends, is the real problem with the education system. the unwillingness to affect bold change, out of a fear of the new, out of an unwillingness to rock the boat. 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' really is the motto of the MOE. (instead of 'Teach. Mould the future of the nation.' which i always have the urge to misspell and punctuate thusly: 'Teach Mold. The Future Of The Nation.') in our discussion with MOE representatives the current changes to the system came up. a quick recap, for those who have no idea what i'm talking about:
  • four 'families' of schools (Raffles, ACS, Hwa Chong, and Victoria i believe) are switching some of their kids to the six-year 'through train' model, where they will no longer take the O levels at sixteen, but just the A levels or the International Baccalaureate at eighteen;
  • as a result of this, the original GEP schools are not longer running GEP programs (Raffles, ACS); and
  • two private schools (privately funded and privately run) are being opened.

in addition to these changes the ministry is also looking at various issues with exam stress and overloading the curriculum of the kids etc.

now we all know my opinion of the through train program - i like it, for the most part, but dislike its implementation. i think it's going to be rather rushed, and of course the first few bunches of kids are going to suffer for being the guinea pigs (though i daresay they'll still have a better time of it than the kids going to regular O-level-A-level route), but that is unavoidable with any big change in the system. and it was pointed out that if the kids fail to do well at the A levels they won't even have their O levels to fall back on -all they will have is the PSLE cert. a valid point. however, seeing as they are preselected (not to fail) i doubt this will be a real issue, at least not in the initial years. there's a reason these plans are only being implemented in the top schools - these kids are far more likely to do well even if the program they are in is absolute crap.

my problem with the private schools -and to a certain, lesser degree with the through train- is that education isn't just about what you learn from books. going to school is in part -when you're a kid, a great part- a socialisation process through which you learn how to interact with your peers. school takes you out of the isolated, insulated little world you have always inhabited, and brings you out into a larger, more varied world. it's supposed to show you that there are all kinds of people out there and you will have to get along with all of them or your life will be miserable (as some kids' lives invariably are, in school).

quite frankly i have to say that for the most part, my school experience has surrounded me with kids as smart as and smarter than i am (i doubt anyone would claim i am one of the brightest crayons in the GEP box) who come from similar backgrounds, which would have wound up handicapping me if i hadn't been in RJ Humanz (some of my GEP friends had trouble adjusting to normal sch life, and this was adjusting to the brightest ten percent or less of the entire cohort) and then gone to college in Singapore --but i didn't. i escaped to Chicago instead, where everyone is weird and therefore it's ok. and what i'm worried about with the private schools and the through train is that kids from a certain background and place in life will congregate (ok to be more specific i'm worried that the private schools will become a rich-little-boys-playground) and never learn that there are other people out there who aren't exactly like them. then god help them when they emerge, blinking, into the light of reality at the end of the train-tunnel (oh dear, my metaphors are getting carried away).

i'm not saying that the through train or private school is in itself bad. heavens no - i want it for all kids, though i'll accept that some kids aren't suited to this kind of pedagogical method- but i think i'd like to see a little more consideration from MOE about the social aspect of education rather than the purely academic paper-chase (oh, that's a post for another day) aspect of it. and instead of having two private schools outside of MOE jurisdiction, i think i'd like to see the private-school aspect of choice being applied within the MOE system - i fail to see why greater customisation is impossible under the MOE. all it really needs to do is widen its boundaries and guidelines a little, and trust in the system it has built -and the market- to correct any excesses during transition periods. if MOE took its fingers out of a few pies, and took a step back from the ground-level ops of the education system, who knows how much better it could be? and all with less, not more, effort from our civil service.

all right. i think that's quite enough for now. feel free to chime in via comment. =)


At 1:34 AM, August 04, 2004, Blogger perception said...

remember to talk to us again if either of us make it into MOE HQ. =) we intend to, but I'm not sure how easy it is to get in, and once in, if it's actually possible to change anything.

At 5:12 AM, August 04, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...

Just curious about one thing.

Why is it that when a school is "private", it must necessarily be expensive?

I agree that while the "traditional" idea of a private school is one which is exclusive and catering to the "high-end" of the market, shouldn't it be possible to also create good private schools which are inexpensive?

For example, in the airline industry, you have the national carriers and the budget airlines. Honestly, I think most of the growth over the past 5 years have been with the low-cost carriers. So I think its possible to set up no frills private schools that cater to low and middle income families.

And if these schools prove to be good, I don't see why those from the aristocracy wouldn't send their children to these schools also.

I distinctly remember reading an article from The Economist a couple of weeks ago about some British Indian guy whose business empire was all about creating low-cost quality private education. Sorry I don't remember which issue, I hope you find it. After all, most economists agree that the British education system is more or less the shits.

Hah, I never thought I'd see the words "low-cost", "quality" and "education" in the same sentence. But what the hell, that's the power of the free market for you.

At 5:58 AM, August 04, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely am withholding my opinion about all the through train and all that for the moment, but regarding GEP, I used to think the same way. That I was one of the lucky ones because I could just about interact with everyone else and better still, escaped to brown where I can do whatever I want. But somehow being with those ultra smart ultra weird people has definitely challenged me. I might not be as brilliant but it made me think more on a day to day basis and challenge the social norms, which might not be such a bad thing. Of course I only say this cause I don't actually have to go back to singapore and work in the government so my perspective is a little skewed. :-p -C

At 9:21 AM, August 04, 2004, Blogger J. said...


that's what popped into mind while listening to the MOE speaker go on about private schools - that it -should- be possible to have inexpensive, high-quality education and we don't -necessarily- have to have private schools that are expensive or elitist. however, he insisted on continuing to speak of private schools as if they were higher cost versions of independent schools (where, as you know, the school fees are already outrageous), so that's where i'm coming from.

and he may well be right. i don't know if the education market here is big enough and well-supplied enough with good teachers and administrators that it would be -possible- even to have an inexpensive private school. (come to think of it i've never heard of one.) and a no-frills, low cost private school would just be competing with the schools in the MOE system, which are highly highly subsidised by the government -a private school would not have taxpayer money to defray operations costs.

if you are talking about inexpensive, quality education in Singapore, i think we may just be forced to turn to the government and demand -well within our rights as citizens -and- consumers of said product- better education for our children in the MOE system.


i shall keep that in mind. -rubbing hands together- i suspect getting in will be the easier of the two parts, though that in itself is hard. gotta survive the teaching stint first!


i don't doubt that GEP has been good for me as a human being and an individual. i'm not sure that it has been good for me as an integrated member of Singaporean society. and it sure as hell as made it much easier for me to feel like i can escape to another country if i can't stand it/make it here.

but we shall see. =)

having fun in Japan yet? =p

At 9:50 AM, August 04, 2004, Blogger Packrat said...

Private school education is expensive because education tends to be expensive. Let's mastercard it:
School teachers' salaries: $4000 per teacher.
Administrators' salaries: $10'000 per big dick.
Infrastructure: $20 million.

The cost of education: Priceless.

For everything else, there's mold. Education's expensive. The fact that our government pumps quite a lot of money to subsidise education in Singapore should be applauded. (*gag*...*gag*)

Sadly enough, my take on the through train system: Complete and utter failure. Within the last one and a half years, it's moved from

"let's allow the kids to learn at a pace that they're more comfortable with so that learning will be more in-depth"
"let's see how much stuff we can put into these kids' heads. Pass the plunger..."

All the through train / IP has done is change the name of education. The kids still cram, they're forced to work a whole lot harder and because it's a completely different education system to what they're used to, they can't handle it. The end product will be a success in most eyes, but they won't be students that are very much different from the students we produce now.

About changing the system: The best way to do it would be with a steady hand and a high powered rifle. :) Otherwise, it's gradually evolving...sometimes you gotta sell your superiors a good idea and let them take the credit for it. Alas, our world lacks these martyrs and thus nothing changes.

Apologies...as Michel puts it so eloquently in GG, I am suffering from ennui.

At 10:50 AM, August 04, 2004, Blogger J. said...

my take on changing the system is it's self-sustaining at this point. even a highpowered rifle will not save us-unless you are proposing we shoot every parent in the city (might not be a bad idea, that. well, except my own, of course. -grin-). a society that demands results will find a way to create that demand within the sch systems no matter how hard we try to protect it, and we don't try very hard, that's for sure.

that's why i think that while the through train/IP is a good idea, the execution of it was -and still is- terrible. no offence meant to the teachers -of course some of you are doing your level best to keep it from being terrible- but things coming down from upstairs and pressure from parents has got to be screwing things up.

i really wish we could figure out a way to make it work -right-.

At 1:38 PM, August 04, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...

I'm still of the opinion that education costs are high because of market inefficiency. Seriously, you don't get more monopolistic than this scenario. With the state being the sole supplier of education, how can costs not be high? I know MOE has been throwing money at the system, but then again, so has Labour in Britain, and look where it got them.

Believe me, if the market were truly de-regulated, you WILL see low-cost high quality education.

At 1:55 PM, August 04, 2004, Blogger J. said...

i take your point that as a monopolistic -and- bureaucratic institution MOE is terribly terribly inefficient. it really is. no argument there; no argument that it could -and should- be better at what it does. (seeing as we have little, if any, alternative to it.)

but your solution seems to rest on two assumptions:

(1) that it is possible to have a free market in education (in fact, that it is desirable to have a free market in education); and

(2) a free market in education -will- provide low-cost, high-quality education.

i don't think i can name an education system that is completely deregulated -that a government has no control over- that is established as the status quo regime. (perhaps in pockets, yes.) so perhaps we are talking in purely theoretical terms.

seeing that i believe education is also about socialisation i doubt there exist governments that are willing to totally release the system without trying to control the social norms and standards that the schs impart to their kids (knowingly or unknowingly). so that's a big hurdle right there.

plus if education is a merit good and a public good to boot (i think it is), with positive externalities and insufficient consumption, then perhaps education as a good is a case of market failure anyway. who's to say that in a free market we would get enough kids wanting a high standard of education to induce a supply of it?

i think we just don't know how a free market in education in a market the size of Singapore's will behave. whether there will be market imperfections, or a oligopolistic structure or what. so it's hard to say whether we'll get low-cost or high-cost education, and whether its quality will be high or low.

my brain isn't functioning v well (it's lunchtime) so please forgive me if i'm making some grevious errors here. =)

At 9:45 PM, August 04, 2004, Blogger Packrat said...

Low cost high quality education? Impossible. Good martyrs are ridiculously hard to find. Find me a teacher who doesn't care about pay and I'll show you a teacher who doesn't care about his/her family...and therefore is a terrible teacher.
Problem is that teachers are expensive because good ones are hard to find and the ones with a love for teaching have to be renumerated for their time. No matter how much I love to teach, I wouldn't be teaching very well if I was suffering from scurvy because I can't afford fruit. I wouldn't be able to concentrate on teaching if my own children were suffering from jaundice and I had no money to get them to the doctor.
How about equipment? Can a teacher teach physics without a lab? Where's that money coming from? How about chemicals for chemistry?
Free market or not, the price of education's pretty expensive...as much as I would love to see low cost private education, it's just not feasible.
Teachers go through a whole load of crap...and it's not like we don't have a whole lot of choice of alternative careers...(except us lit grads that are doomed to teacherdom...) Add to the mix the fact that people really don't respect teachers very much nowsadays and you'll see that there can't be very low cost, high quality education.
It's not about throwing money into the system with no goal in mind. Once again you have to ask yourself, if the government weren't pumping money into looking for good teachers, where would we be? (*gag*...*Cough*...*Choke*)

At 10:33 PM, August 04, 2004, Blogger Tym said...

Just a thought: J. asked some comments back whether it's possible to have high quality, inexpensive education in Singapore. My rejoinder is: Doesn't it already exist? The top schools --- whichever level you look at. Kids pay $10, $20 a month and they get pretty sweet resources for it. I'm not saying it's perfect, but I don't think a lack of quality inexpensive education is something in particular to worry about.

At 3:11 AM, August 05, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...


I have no answer to the socialisation objective. It all depends on the aims of education I guess. But since you already know that I'm no fan of social engineering, you can see why I did not take that into consideration.

If education is simply about equipping people with the skills and knowledge to make their way through life, then I believe a free market approach should work. If the goals are thought control and social engineering, then I guess state involvement would make sense.

Also, if education is considered a public good, then it would be an impure one. We can say for certain that education is excludable (heck, even the MOE does it with its streaming, through-train, GEP etc), and therefore does not present a free-rider problem.

So the question we have to ask, are there really positive externalities? I do not believe that education cannot be profitable. In fact, I would argue education is not profitable for private actors simply because state-funded schools have a competitive edge in the form of subsidies. A deregulated education sector would definitely see more private schools being set up.

As for insufficient consumption, that sounds like a normative statement. I wonder if you might think its a little strange to tell people that they're not buying enough of a particular good? Your Big Brother instincts starting show perhaps? ;D

I suggest that state subsidies in education in fact distort the market. E.g. there was a time when Singapore needed engineers. People signed up in droves. Now engineers are more or less the serfs of graduates. Next, they wanted IT specialists. I know of many Com Science grads working as computer technicians. Nowadays biotechnology is the buzzword. Trust me on this one. You're gonna see lots of destitute biotech grads roaming the streets for years to come. I believe that state subsidies induce an overconsumption of education. I hope the above examples are good enough to illustrate my point. If they suck, please tell me. lol

PS: One more example, which I find very amusing. How often do you hear people talking about their education being completely useless in their working lives? Doesn't that already suggest some sort of market failure? =D

At 3:30 AM, August 05, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...


As with any form of business, wages are merely one type of cost. A profitable education provider would no doubt know how to manage business profitably.

For example, let us just compare British and American universities. Shouldn't the fact that there is a heavy concentration of American universities in rankings suggest that state interference is a no-no? The best American unis are private. And even the best state-subsidised unis (University of California) have more of their budget coming in from private sources.

American unis poach the best academics from around the world. Why? Money. How did they get all that money? God knows, but any businessman will tell you that Harvard, Yale or Stanford didn't get where they did on government handouts.

Studying here in Melbourne, I have a Law Prof who did a stint at Yale. She regaled me with tales of how the professors at Yale have 10 to 20 research and teaching assistants each. A tenured professor here at University of Melbourne would be lucky to even have one. And the difference being? Yale controls and manages its own endowment. Melbourne still depends on government funding.

Private schools in no way means that teachers have to take a pay cut. In fact, I argue that teachers in private schools would probably get higher pay, have greater flexibility in teaching, and are probably not bound by all that bureaucratic crap that inflicts the MOE system, simply because red-tape equals no profits.

And higher wages does not necessarily mean higher cost of education. As I've mentioned, student fees are merely one source of income. I don't believe any sensible business person would depend entirely on student fees. Think of this possiblity: student fees can be made to cover costs as far as possible, but the real profits would be made from elsewhere.

I can bet you now ($50) that if the school system were deregulated and barriers of entry to private schools removed, you'll see low-cost high-quality education within 5 years. And the teachers would be more highly paid than MOE serfs. ;)

At 9:00 AM, August 05, 2004, Blogger J. said...

several things, before i start work:

Tym: i was referring to private low-cost high-quality education -grin- i know we have low-cost high-quality education in the highly subsidised MOE system! =)

shianux: i don't think socialisation is 'social engineering' per se (well everything can and cannot be social engineering, really), in the sense that it is indoctrination and brainwashing. it's not even about national education. i guess i mean socialisation in the way polsci peeps mean it - learning to play nice with other people (states, in their case). and it's hard to have that without some kind of means to ensure that you are exposed to people-unlike-yourself in the first place.

i don't think that the notion of 'merit goods' is necessarily Big Brotherish. it seems accepted that there are goods that people consume too much of and consume too little of, because of their social positive or negative externalities. and i dispute your claim that there are no positive externalities for education - just speaking from an economic standpoint, an educated workforce means we can continue develop different sectors of the economy and stay ahead of our competition that way (perhaps), which is something that cannot happen without a critical mass of educated workers.

i don't dispute that there's healthy competition between the colleges in the states, and there's good quality education to be had out there -at an outrageous price, of course, because as Packrat pointed out, it costs a shitload of money not just for good teachers but also good infrastructure. but i'm not arguing that education at the tertiary level should not be deregulated -in fact i think it should be- but that education at the primary and secondary level should continue to be regulated, albeit not in an I-Am-Your-Mother-Do-As-I-Say kind of way.

last point: i have no doubt whatsoever that the majority of what i have learned -in terms of facts figures and so forth- will be completely useless to me in my career. however, that isn't -to me- the important part of any education. it's the process of learning to learn that's important, not really -what- you learn. content can always be picked up again from books and whatnot -if you have been given the skills that allow you to find and use said content on your own. otherwise you will always be limited to knowing just what your teachers deemed important while you were in school, right?

At 3:28 PM, August 05, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...

I just wanna say thanks for replying, and sorry for hogging up so much of your screen space!

At 5:20 PM, August 05, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...

Ok, firstly I'd like to apologise if I have offended or irritated you in any way. From the tone of your reply you did sound quite pissed off. I hope I'm wrong though.

Secondly, I admit that I was wrong about the socialisation. I guess I misunderstood what you meant. I agree with you that socialisation is very important.

About positive externalities... well, the problem I would say is mostly down to the social engineering model of education. I don't know if you see it this way, but I've always thought of Singapore's education policy as "put your eggs all in one basket and bet the house" model. There always appears to be some kind of agenda to talk up certain kinds of industries, depending on which sector was most fashionable at the time. Of course, this almost always ensures that we are behind the curve. I've never put much faith in the abilities of a few to predict the future for the many, which is why I believe this model of education cannot meet the needs of a normal free-market economy. Furthermore, it would be hard to build a diversified economy through a non-diversified workforce. Wouldn't that mean the positive externality cannot be realised?

Well, that's what I wanted to add. Hope I've not made you angry or anything like that.


At 9:27 PM, August 05, 2004, Blogger J. said...


no no, don't worry - i just get v worked up about education in general, and Big Brother comments in particular. =) but i've enjoyed the discussion.

perhaps i don't see the education system as particularly conveyorbelt-like because i'm -not- an engineer, lawyer, or doctor. i feel like i have options beyond what the economy needs most at any given time. if there are pressures of people to choose what career/study path they take it comes from what they perceive the message to be -and what their parents perceive the message to be- from the kiasuism of people. that drives me wild. i figure i'm not the median case but the fact is it doesn't have to be a conveyor belt. people just need to flex their muscles and use their brains more independently. and that's not entirely the fault of the government or the education system.

At 9:38 AM, August 06, 2004, Blogger The Legal Janitor said...

I was just teasing you about the Big Brother thing... :D


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