BUDGET DEBATE – DAY 7
BY CLARISSA OON
OPPOSITION MP Low Thia Khiang (Hougang) yesterday took issue with the way one school principal told a class of Secondary 5 Normal (Academic) students to forget about sitting for their O levels, and to apply for places in the Institute of Technical Education instead.
The incident involved a mission school for girls, which was not named, and caused a stir when it was reported in January.
Yesterday, Mr Low asked the Education Minister if pegging educators’ pay to the school’s performance comes at the expense of weaker students.
From next month, the pay and bonuses of principals and teachers will be tied more closely to their performance.
Mr Low asked exactly how they are assessed and if factors such as the school’s ranking and the mean subject grade of the class are considered.
If so, he felt that educators are “unwittingly being transformed into technocrats, crunching and manipulating numbers either to meet a personal goal or a national objective”.
In reply, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said principals and teachers are assessed on a range of competencies, and not just based on school awards or rankings or their students’ academic results.
This transparent appraisal system for educators is called the Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS).
Among its criteria is whether teachers “are able to teach creatively and effectively, whether they go out of the way to look after the needs of their students” and “whether they contribute to better teamwork in their department”.
The bottom line, said the minister, is their “passion and commitment to nurture the whole child”.
He said that when the incident mentioned by Mr Low was first reported, he did a careful study of the school and the performance of its Normal stream students.
He found that almost all its Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students moved on to Secondary 5.
Under the same principal, the school’s successive cohorts of Secondary 5 students also did better in their O levels compared to other schools.
He suggested that she had her own method of motivating the students.
“Different schools have different methods. The ministry tries not to scrutinise everything they say or do, as long as they don’t make serious mistakes.
“In fact, this same school had a requirement some years ago, where all its girls had to wear a petticoat. It was the school’s decision and parents understood the ethos of the school,” said the minister.
He noted that striking the right balance between “affirming” and “challenging” children is “a complex matter” and that both are needed for effective results.
A recent international study by the United States’ Brookings Institution found that the most confident eighth-grade maths students came from the Middle East, Africa and the US.
Yet students from East Asia – such as those from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan – did better in terms of international maths test scores, even though they ranked among the lowest in self-confidence.
“The study found that the least confident student in Singapore did better in mathematics than the most confident American student,” said Mr Tharman with a smile.
Schools and principals, he concluded, have to find their own way of pushing students to do better, and only time will tell which are the right methods.