Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The tuition hamster-wheel (or the tragedy of 'normal')

This tuition necessary-or-unnecessary debate ignores a key issue: we operate on a market economy. Whatever people want in large enough numbers, there is a provider -- for a price. The desire, in this case, is an academic qualification that appears to be getting increasingly difficult to obtain. The schools, apparently, aren't handing them out like they are supposed to. No, unlike Christmas candy, those coveted 'A' grades are only obtainable through hard work. After-school tuition has since arisen to reassure parents that their kids will get the A's that they need by making sure they don't have time to do anything else but work hard.

What a dilemma. Schools are incredibly stingy with their 'A' grades, but every kid wants them because every other kid -- it seems -- can get them. Parents don't understand when the schools tell them that tuition is not necessary. Likewise, schools don't understand when parents insist that it is. Why are schools so callous towards the plight of parents? Because the job of the school is to educate thousands of kids a year. Why are parents so intractable? Because they have to educate only one.

In the S'pore system, schools educate thousands of kids taking a national standardized exam every year. Given a number of students to qualify a year, they train, assess and apply Quality Control procedures for the benefit of their future employers. Statistics tell us that given a large enough sample, plotting particular data about it will yield a normal distribution curve. That is to say, there will be a small number of high results, followed by an ever widening number of mid-range results, tapering off with a relatively small number of low results. A variation in the shape of the distribution curve indicates an abnormality or irregularity in the data. If the data bunches low, there's a lot of soul searching to be done over procedures, methodology, and to some extent, input. But it becomes a bigger problem if the data bunches high. Standards too low? Test too easy? Cheating? Or more interestingly, are standards being surpassed on a large scale?

The increasing trend of after-school tuition may well be causing overall academic standards to rise. More kids, working hard, guided by competent tuition agencies, are likely to raise academic results at an increased level. For the tuition agencies, the target market is different. Tuition caters to parents who have that one kid to educate, promising an 'A' grade for that kid. Even if there is a group of kids that attends tuition classes, the agency works to bunch results at the high level. Anything less, and the agency can shut its doors forever.

Why can't schools do the same? Because schools provide mass education for the entire population. Schools must maintain a normal distribution result curve or they are no longer trusted as being able to provide the nation with quality education. To bunch low is clearly not meeting standards; but bunching high means that standards are too low to trust the school's ability to produce quality new employees.

So what happens when previous standards are being surpassed by more and more kids? Keep raising the standards until the distribution can become 'normal' again. So are our kids working too hard to meet current standards? Under normal circumstances, they don't have to. But to achieve the higher bands, they will have to. That too is normal. So the mass consumption of tuition services may be helping our kids become academically smarter cohort after cohort. But it is also raising the standards and expectations every succeeding cohort has to meet and exceed in order to be considered better-than-normal.

This is the tragedy of everybody doing their jobs well. We always have to do one better the next time. Nobody wants to be thought of as just 'normal'.

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