Friday, March 16, 2007

the clientèle of education

This is the follow-up post to my article on streaming, as previously promised. Piper wrote that everyone is quick to criticize the teaching profession, whereas people are less inclined to do so for other occupations, such as handphone makers, or fast-food restaurateurs. Piper makes the valid point that most of such critics are not teachers, and have little idea the kind of challenges and difficulties individual teachers face in their profession. If they did, their criticisms may not be as harsh.

A friend once remarked to me, "everybody thinks that they are experts on education". There is at least one sense which most individuals are qualified to criticize the education system, and that is that these individuals have been through the education system itself, and hence have experienced, as students, some of its good and bad. Yet, the experiences of students in neighborhood schools, SAP schools or "top" independent schools are different, and your individual experience, although not irrelevant, does not form the complete picture. Similarly, the experience of a student is not the same as the experience of a teacher, or that of a principal, or that of MOE policy makers. Which brings me to the question I want to ask in this article: "Who are the real clients of education?"

I asked my friend who is a teacher this question and she replied that the word "stakeholders" is probably more appropriate. This brings to mind the image of an investor. Because you invest into say, a company, there has to be something you get out of that company, dividends perhaps, otherwise you would have no reason to invest in the first place. Also, because without your investments, the company would not exist in the first place, you feel that you deserve a say in certain decisions which the company makes. What gets complicated is when different investors have conflicting interests, and yet the management of the company still has to make a decision. Making any decision will inadvertently risk alienating one group of investors or another. The analogy isn't perfect, but similarly in the education system, there is more than one party who are stakeholders. Who are they?

Once, nearing the end of a math lecture, many students were impatiently packing their bags eager to leave the room when the lecturer still had not finished. He then commented, "Students are the only consumers in the world who actually want to get cheated". Probably everybody agrees that students are the most direct consumers of education, and insofar as education is considered a "service", students are the most immediate clients. Perhaps this makes students the most important stakeholder in education. After all, it seems that any education which is actually NOT beneficial for the student at all, can hardly make the case that it deserves to be called "education".

Especially for non-tertiary education, parents are those who pay for the school and tuition fees of education. This is especially so for private or independent schools. So in a sense, parents are like the investors of the education corporation and therefore there is some pressure by educators to please parents. But the investor analogy is not really that accurate. After all, most parents do not really have a choice (unless they are quite rich) to send their children to another education system if they are displeased with this one. Nevertheless, there is an aspect where most parents feel that they are the ones ultimately responsible for the education of their own children, and hence they have ought to have a say on how educators educate their children.

Even though educators are part of the education system, in a very basic economic sense, they are also stakeholders. Teaching is an occupation. Teachers do work, and in return they get paid (and perhaps other benefits). This is an economic exchange, just like any other occupation. If the system is such that teachers receive atrocious pay and horrible benefits, nobody will want to teach, and the system collapses.

Perhaps not as obvious, but academic institutions themselves are also stakeholders. Just as with the case of individual educators, schools need funds to function. The more funds allocated to (or generated by) a school, the greater expenditure of such funds on education resources and supposedly, the better the quality of the education. I am under the impression that schools under MOE actually fight among each other for a greater slice of a pie of funds from MOE, and they will try to prove why they deserve certain funding more than other schools. There is also the intangible aspect of school "branding". It is in the interests of academic institutions to continually "better" the name of the school, perhaps to seek a greater slice of the pie, but I suspect also to seek reputation for it's own sake.

Society and the State
Using the same investor analogy, citizens pay the taxes which funds the education sector of the civil service, and taxpayers will want to have some say on how those tax dollars are spent, regardless if the children of the individual taxpayers are actually going through that education system. But aside from this, education (from the point of view of the state) is about preparing for the future of the nation. More than just merely supplying the necessary qualifications and skills to enter the workforce (and hence contribute to the economy), education also shapes the skills set of tomorrow's workforce, and this ties in to what the state envisions (or hopes to make) tomorrow's economy to be. The prime example of this is life sciences. The state came to the decision that life sciences would be a good industry to develop, for the overall (economical) good of the nation in the future. However, the life sciences sector requires a skilled workforce which isn't available at present, and thus the state encourages the study of life sciences.

It is quite obvious that the interests of these stakeholders do not always coincide. To an individual student, it may not be in his/her best interests to study life sciences, but he/she might have ended up doing so because of the encouragement by the state. A teacher struggling to get a decent grade in his/her ranking may not have the resources to cater to the individual needs of a student or two. A parent may not want his/her child to get the impression that premarital sex is permissible, but a teacher may think that it is in the best interest of the student to have a comprehensive sex education. A school, in the pursuit for more awards and a better "name", may result in an overly competitive atmosphere which is detrimental to its teachers. The list goes on.

I think that sometimes, because we all think we know a lot about education and what education ought to be, we have been too quick to criticize. Teachers who aren't helping students enough are labeled selfish or lacking in passion. Schools who strive for awards are criticized for being self-serving. Parents for being more concerned with what they want their own child to be than what is really good for the student. MOE for participating in social engineering. I think education is really more complicated than it seems, and nobody, including the higher-ups and the policy makers in MOE (I suspect), have a really clear view of all the different aspects of education and how it affects other areas.

Some might want to argue, shouldn't students be the ONLY stakeholder in education? Despite its good intentions, the state should not intervene with education, just like the state should not intervene with whether or not we have babies. Personally, I don't think that view is realistic. Shaping the skill sets of our workforce of the future may be necessary in order for the nation to thrive (or even survive) in the future, with growing pressures due to globalization and improving neighbors, even if such decisions are prone to error. And "the nation" includes yourself, your children and your children's children.

Lastly, it is important to note that what is in the best interest of the nation, the school, or even the teachers, may not be in YOUR best interest or the best interest of your child. Therefore, when making decisions pertaining to education, scholarships or career choice, it is best to think carefully about your personal situation and not be overly influenced by the views of others.

No comments: