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Guest Contribution

Tuition We Don’t Have to Believe In

Regardless of whether their children need it or not, parents often just heap tuition on their kids so as not to lose out to the kid-next-door.

I was thinking about the relevance of tuition to our education system, because I recognise that as much as the demand for tuition is determined by actual need to a certain extent, it is driven even more by perceived need; that is, there is huge overconsumption of this good. Regardless of whether their children need it or not, parents often just heap tuition on their kids so as not to lose out to the kid-next-door.

In an ideal education system, the allocation of resources to the education of every individual should be such that the resources provided by the ministry are sufficient for every single child, and that children should be equipped with sufficient study skills to manage on their own to a certain extent.

Schools Are Raising The Bar

There is a certain shift in focus for some tuition centres to equip students with study skills, but imparting these skills require time and these tuition centres are often not viewed as the best tuition centres due to the reduced concentration of knowledge pumped into their students’ heads. Schools right now are gradually improving on the equipping of skills, alongside the inculcation of knowledge what with Thinking Schools Learning Nation and Teach Less Learn More, but we are still not there yet.

Having said that, it is extremely unfair to write off the huge leaps that our education has made continuously: with the huge amount of work that teachers put in within and outside the classroom, as well as the administration and other supporting staff to make schools conducive places for learning. It is extremely heartening for students to know that their teachers will always be available to them to answer their questions if they can spare the time, and the teacher in school will always be the best person to turn to when the student has queries about his academic work.

Of course, whether the teachers can actually spare the time is another bone for contention, and we’d best leave this issue to further debate separately. (I am guessing that a lot of teachers can’t supply enough time to meet the students’ demands right now, in simple economic terms, but I’m not too confident that tuition would just fall off the face of the Earth, or just Singapore for that matter even if the teachers could spare all the time in the world).

Tuition As A “Perceived Necessity”

Parents need to recognise that – in the tuition equation – quantity does not equate to quality.

Even if we addressed the actual demand for tuition, the perceived need will still be there as long as our mentality doesn’t change. Parents need to recognise that quantity does not equate to quality, and that heaping your child with four hours of tuition is not necessarily going to produce twice the results compared to two hours of tuition. There is no causal effect in this, and even the correlation is highly doubtful. If a child cannot cope with schoolwork, the right and immediate priority should be to find out why rather than signing him/her up for tuition.

Tuition does not solve the problem if the kid understands his work, just that he has trouble getting along with his classmates or doesn’t get enough rest due to the multitude of CCAs he’s involved in. In the latter case, how would MORE tuition even remotely help him with his underperformance in class?

Perhaps I could start a tuition centre called Tuition You Don’t Need and try to teach the kids study skills and effective techniques to maximise learning, together with classes that deliver the subject matter adequately, and make lots of money together with the tens and thousands of other centres that promise to “optimise learning”. I say that in jest, but you do get my point.

Amidst The Scramble, (Some) Parents Are Losing The Plot

Perhaps the aim of tuition should be to educate the parents in addition to the child.

More importantly, perhaps the aim of tuition should be to educate the parents in addition to the child. There are many other ways to improve academic performance of the child other than tuition alone, and perhaps viewing tuition as the one and only cure to this problem is just lazy, and bordering on plain irresponsibility on the part of the parent. I can understand that parents are concerned about their children’s grades and that their future may hinge upon a major exam or another, but they can and should do more.

Parental love in the form of personal attention from the parents – for example, sitting down after a long day at work with their children for an hour of two, supervising their work and talking about their children’s day at school, or creating a quiet and conducive environment at home by installing screens to minimise the disruption from construction work nearby – may be less expensive but far more effective. My point is that there should be personalised solutions to almost every case of underperformance, although there may be causes that are far more prevalent than others, such as disruptions in the family affecting the children’s emotions and hence ability to concentrate.

Tuition Centres And Aggressive Marketing: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

This problem of tuition (I would actually define it as a problem) is exacerbated by the fact that tuition centres aggressively market themselves in this competitive but lucrative market. Spurred on by the huge profit margins, advertisements continuously tell parents that their kids do need tuition and that tuition does help to improve grades. They then proceed to slap huge lists of students who have attended their classes and their grades in major examinations, and some even provide testimonials from parents or students who have been in these classes.

But think about it, the causal link between the tuition centres’ lessons and the improved academic performance is not even proven – the parents convince themselves that that is the case! The causal link has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, and even if it is an unfortunate case of correlation, that relationship is tenuous at best. Testimonials fare even worse on the reliability scales – how can a personal experience be generalised and marketed as such?

The problem of tuition is exacerbated by the fact that tuition centres aggressively market themselves in this competitive but lucrative market.

Unfortunately, parents often err on the side of caution for the case of tuition, preferring to pay and find out that it may not work as compared to not signing their children up and realising that it works and their children are now facing a “huge disadvantage”.

Market failure has never reared its ugly head that blatantly in many other markets, yet we are oblivious to the perils we are facing here. The school environment is already a pressure cooker for most students, why raise the temperature even further without understanding why we are doing it?

I’m not saying that tuition is bad – it can help some students reach the level of academic performance they should be hitting, but it should not be the hard and fast rule for every case of academic underperformance and definitely should not be seen as such.

The writer (Howard Chiu (Mr.), who can be reached at y04chs473@gmail.com) is writing this line because he sees it almost everywhere in publications, but is waiting for his ORD anyway.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


10 thoughts on “Tuition We Don’t Have to Believe In

  1. The problem with education is that tuition is forcing standards upwards, requiring students to take even more tuition courses in order to compete with their peers.

    Given a situation where there is a reward, parties will strive to gain that reward by expending resources to do so. For example, in the market for consumer electronics, in order to profit, Apple, Microsoft and other firms spend millions on product development, advertising and other expenses in order to gain market share by being more competitive than others, and hence profit from increased consumer expenditure on their products. If the firms were to ALL not spend any more than their competitors, there would not be the need to spend so much to outdo them, but because it is impossible to trust their rivals not to attempt to outdo them (and it’s highly illegal to actually make a deal like this) the companies spend way more than they otherwise would have.

    It is the same with tuition. Parents often want their children to achieve the best academic results possible (I will not go so far as to say they want the best for their children in these cases). However, academic proficiency is competitive, just like the market for consumer electronics; if a group of students does better than the rest, that group receives the “rewards” of (theoretical) better prospects, increased support from the school, scholarships and other such things. Hence, parents strive to get their children into that “elite”, spending resources on things like assessment books and tuition.

    However, this is where it starts to differ slightly from the analogy of the consumer market, as standards in academia are relative. When schools find that a larger-than-expected number students are exceeding the benchmarks set, they might conclude that their benchmarks are too low, and they can afford to push their students further, and hence they might raise the difficulty of their tests until the number of students exceeding the benchmarks returns to more normal levels. This is likely due to a belief that harder tests will prepare students better for the various standardised exams they must sit for (PSLE, N’s/O’s, A’s), and that by having their students do better for these exams the school becomes more competitive and prestigious, as well as receiving awards from the government.

    Hence, in this case, an increase in the level of expenditure on tuition services may lead to a rise in the academic standards of a particular batch of students, but this rise may in turn lead to the schools raising the difficulty of their tests even further, leading to more students receiving “poor” results and hence driving parents to spend more on tuition in order to ensure their child has a shot at entering the “elite” who receive scholarships and other rewards for good academic performance, and hence a vicious cycle of expenditure and raising of standards in response to expenditure. Of course, there is a certain limit to how much expenditure on tuition and how much raising of standards can occur, the former based on the financial capability of each parent and the latter based on the inability of certain questions to get much harder than they already are, and even parents and schools ought to acknowledge to some extent that the law of diminishing returns applies to tuition expenditure and raising of standards and hence spending or raising standard beyond a certain point does not bring any additional benefit to students and the school (if almost everyone is failing there is no benefit!) and hence they will cease expenditure and increasing of standards even before they reach this limit.

    I am just a JC1 student in JC, so anyone who knows better about school examination policy (like a teacher) is free to correct me on it. However, I do know for a fact that schools indeed compete for awards and that quite a number set their internal examinations with harder questions than are found the actual standardised tests, leading to the inference that, having no other obvious reason to do so, it is to prepare students for standardised tests, and such a policy is in fact an open secret (sometimes just open, period) among some schools. Feel free to add on to my loosely-economic theory as well; I derived it from an interesting economics book called The Economic Naturalist as well as my own knowledge on the subject.

    Posted by tehburntone | October 8, 2011, 2:48 am
  2. Hello tehburntone,

    thanks for responding with such a well-elaborated answer! I really appreciate the time and thought you invested in writing this, but first let me point out that I agree with what you said to a large extent. Just allow me to provide more food for thought on this topic, because our viewpoints are not contradicting by too much.

    You mentioned that tuition will lead to increased standards of students, hence requiring schools to raise the standard of their examinations and driving more students back to tuition, and this vicious cycle just perpetuates itself. When we recognise that the increased standards that we are talking about here (you already pointed that out in your response) is only with reference to examinations and other modes of assessment currently available, we can do something to reduce the flow of this vicious cycle i.e. allow students who do not necessarily have to have tuition to not get caught in this cycle. I have already elaborated slightly on what I mean by “students who do not necessarily have to have tuition” in my original post, so I believe that should suffice for the purposes of this post.

    Throughout your response, you have mentioned exams numerous times, and it is apparent that a possible solution to the vicious cycle may lie in re-examining how we evaluate students on a holistic level. I am personally against the abolition of exams as there are many merits to having them, so how do we change or supplement the current system of assessment? I am actually pretty sure that the MOE is working really hard on this, just that I am not yet within the education system and hence I am not privy to the insider workings within and the “cutting-edge” progress being made.

    Take Project Work for instance – it was meant to inculcate various values such as teamwork and was a commendable attempt to broaden the scope of our education system, but what actually happened may have deviated with what was supposed to happen but quite a fair bit. (If you have any thoughts of Project Work as well, since you’re doing it right now, please voice them out at https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/education-roundtable/#D) haha. But is Project Work really effective? From my personal experience, it ended up being slightly farcical with all of us planning the project but never really executing it. I still got an A for it, but I believe changes have to be made. Just what exactly, I haven’t thought of yet unfortunately.

    Also, you mentioned that schools set papers of higher difficulty as the students get better at tackling the exams (I’m contextualising the increase in “standards”), so perhaps we could also examine what is a good way for schools to push the students’ limits. Making the exams harder could come in two forms, either pushing the students for depth or for breadth. For example, pushing for breadth could come in the form of including material not directly within their syllabus, but they could synthesize that knowledge from what they already know from the existing syllabus and deduce the correct answer.

    Of course, that would be ideal, but I am acutely aware that this may very well backfire and the feeling of “not knowing” something that is being tested will drive students and parents back into feeding the vicious cycle of tuition.

    I apologise if this got slightly rambly, but I believe we can all agree that there is room for improvement to slowly shape our modes of assessments to fit our social and cultural context (perhaps the kiasu culture haha).

    Posted by Howard | October 8, 2011, 11:34 am
  3. This is one of the best articles on tuition I have seen on the net so far.
    Good job! Keep on writing!

    Posted by mathtuition88 | May 21, 2013, 9:02 pm
  4. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.

    Anyhow, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

    Posted by jc economics tuition | September 16, 2013, 2:50 pm


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  3. Pingback: Tuition: Is It A Real Necessity? Or A Perceived Necessity? « guanyinmiao's musings - October 26, 2011

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