Thursday, June 05, 2008

teacher tells student to get tuition: what's really happening?

KTM (in the comments on my inaugural SA post) brought this ST forum letter to my attention. The parent was writing in to complain that the school recommended his/her son to get private tuition because he "needs more help". The parent, well aware that private tuition is not cheap, is livid that that is the solution given by the school, supposedly the main provider of education. At first I thought that this was an irregular case. Certainly by recommending tuition, the school is admitting that they aren't good enough to do their job? But after reading that another parent was told the same thing, and Piper's thoughts, it occurred to me that perhaps this was not such a rare occurrence after all.

I want to do two things with this article. Firstly, I want to run through some possible but different scenarios and play the finger pointing game.

Scenario 1:
The teachers are horrible in doing their job. That is the reason why this parent's child and his classmates are all doing badly in school. These teachers, recognizing their helplessness, or fearing their performance bonus, encourages the students to get private tuition to save their grades. Whose fault is it: teachers, and maybe those who hired them.

Scenario 2:
The students are really really weak academically. Many schools practice streaming of some kind, and is not surprising to find the weakest students in each cohort grouped together in a class. You would expect this class to get the worst grades right? That also explains the "challenging class to teach" remark. The teacher knows this, but the parent is unhappy. The parent demands a solution to improving his son's academic results. Short of any other solutions, the teachers suggest private tuition. Whose fault is it: parent, for being unreasonable.

Scenario 3:
The parent stated that it seems to that the school called up the parents of all the teachers. If only one or two classes are doing badly, this shouldn't be the case. Perhaps, whether doing well or not, it is actually the middle management that demands the teachers to call up all the parents. Why? To encourage all parents to push their children a little bit more, perhaps by providing private tuition, so that all the students would do better, generating better KPIs and performance bonuses. Whose fault is it: middle management, for putting KPIs above individual needs of students.

Scenario 4:
The student in question is over-committed in several different CCAs. Because he spends so much time training, he suffers from lack of sleep and skips many lessons due to competitions. He also does not have enough time or energy to study and do his homework. He is falling behind in his studies but the teacher, who has 39 other students in the same class, decides that he/she cannot cater to the needs of this one student. In desperation, the teacher suggests tuition. Whose fault is it: the student, primarily. But also the school, for not limiting his involvement. [This is an unlikely scenario, as the teacher is likely to feedback to the parent about the student's overcommitment]

So which scenario is true? I don't know. And unless you have some inside information, nobody knows either. It may have elements of more than one scenario. Or it may be a scenario totally different from the 4 mentioned above. So whose fault is it? I don't know. And unless we have inside information, nobody can tell.


What we can and do know however, is that private tuition is not only prevalent, it is lucrative. Regardless of which of the above scenario is true, there is one constant: the tuition teachers earns the big bucks. The question I would like to ask is this: what does the existence of the multi-million dollar (tax-free) industry of private tuition reveal to us about education in Singapore?

1) Exam-oriented culture
At the end of the day, only your exam results matter. By its very nature, the platform of private tuition helps the student score better than school education, since school teachers might carry the "silly" notion of holistic education. Even if you have an excellent school teacher, it doesn't hurt to go for tuition just the same right? Probably may help you get 1 or 2 more marks.

2) Stressed and overworked students
I have a friend who had 9 tuition teachers at one point in time. Now imagine you go to school 5 times a week, you have CCA that meets maybe 3 times a week, and you have school assignments to do. You might have to do some group work, so you need to find time to meet up with your group members. Then, on top of that, you have to go for Chinese tuition, Math tuition, Science tuition, English tuition and violin lessons. And you need to practice your violin everyday. And sometimes your tuition teachers give homework too. How many of you guess that this probably isn't a good for the student long term? Or does having good grades in exams overrule all other considerations?

3) No need to take classroom lessons seriously
Private tutors do not teach anything the student has not been taught in class already. They re-teach, but with greater attention to the student since a school teacher has more students in the classroom. A student who knows that he has a tuition teacher at home paid to give him one-on-one attention going through the exact material gone through in class, is more likely to not the the actual class seriously. School is for socializing and having fun rather than for learning. The poor school teacher, meanwhile, has to deal with misbehaving and disruptive students while trying to impart some knowledge to 40 students.

I think there is little doubt that private tuition is more a bane than a boon to education. Students may score better in exams, but the costs of that (i.e. having no childhood) are great. Many Singaporean students eventually develop a "score well at all costs" mentality, resorting to cheating and academic dishonesty. Other Singaporeans attach so much of their self-worth to their grades that they suffer from low self-esteem and may develop suicidal tendencies. We are already know that too much stress is counter-productive to the student, and that the student needs to play to develop creative and lateral thinking skills. But we are slow to admit that we are giving our own children or our students too much stress. By the time the damage is done, it would already be too late.