This commentary, “Tuition That We May Have To Believe In”, is a reply to a previous article on tuition by Howard Chiu (Mr.), “Tuition We Don’t Have To Believe In” (Read).
I must say Howard’s article had me on his side for a moment. He appealed to me emotively. Nothing like a mental picture of some kid attending hours and hours of tuition immediately after school when he could well be enjoying himself thoroughly with… an iPhone or iPad (I highly doubt kids these days still indulge their time at playgrounds). But the second time I read his article, I silenced the part of my brain which still prays the best for children, so do pardon me if I sound a tad too pragmatic at times.
The overarching assertion that Howard projects his points from is that there is “huge over consumption of this good”. Firstly, private tutoring is a service. Okay I’m just kidding; I am not going to launch into a debate on that. I will attempt to de-establish this statement of his. Is there really over-consumption? We know that over consumption results when costs are, in this case, significantly lower than the reaped benefits.
Does Tuition Genuinely Yield Benefits?
How can we know if the benefits are indeed so strong a case for parents to send their children in hordes? Research has been done (yes, doing your homework is still essential even when you’re not in school). Howard doesn’t trust testimonials. He’s a sceptic. I’m a sceptic too. I hold a healthy amount of doubt towards the research findings by First Tutors, an agency based in UK. Of 150 families found, grades at GCSE and A Levels jumped 2 grades on average within the lower tier of grades U to D. In addition, those who had tuition for 3 to 6 months jumped on average, 1.5 grades as compared to the meagre <1 grade for those who were under private tutors for less than 3 months. This seemed credible till they told me that 95% of those families recommended First Tutors as well.
I mulled through a study  done by the NUS Department of Economics, and it revealed that 10% more tutoring hours in subjects like Math, English and Korean had bestowed students in South Korea with a shocking 0.03 to 0.3% percentile increase in grades. Tell that to 74% of the student population there and they just might strangle you in their stress. After all, they pay on average $2,600 annually to attend hagwons. Finland, the only European country to routinely perform as well as the Koreans, spends less on both public and private education. Only 13% of the students there have after-school remedial. Time magazine thinks them Koreans just aren’t working smart – after all, sleeping students during tuition are a common sight.
A Statistical-Economic Analysis
The South Koreans are simply jjang / daebak (awesome) when it comes to being tutored. Singapore’s former education minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen puts in his affirmation by saying very meaningfully “We’re not as bad as the Koreans.” Dr. Ng also thinks the returns of tuition are diminishing. I look at basic statistics and I just might agree. If expenditure on education are to be viewed as a positive investment, and the returns from education as a whole (be it from school or private tuition), and a zero-sum, then indeed, Dr. Ng is correct. The government doubled their spending per primary school student and anywhere from 1.5 to 2 times for other levels of education.
We could follow this line of thought: expenditure or investment in education goes up, returns from education in school go up too; and in a zero sum, the returns from tuition go down.
No, Howard, no, this is not the end. As you have contended, neither the public school system nor the private tutors have been particularly excellent in imparting adequate studying skills for children to manage on their own. We can’t chart studying skills. That’s pretty intangible. I could be absorbing a textbook simply because I’m pure genius, and Howard could be doing the same too because he knows he’s a visual learner and he chose a textbook full of info-graphics. Prove me wrong; find a way to measure it, I’ll be glad to know. After all, one day if I have kids on my own I want to know if they’ve been studying smart.
Absolute Reliance Upon Tuition Is Not The Way Forward Either
And with that knowledge, I would also be able to know if they’re not studying hard, smart, or affected by other issues. Howard notes that parents should not treat tuition as a cure-all when their children do not perform up to expectations. Putting aside the debate about unconfirmed (beyond a doubt) extraordinaire effects of tuition, I must say I agree. Sometimes children may be getting bullied or in the wrong company, resulting in a lack of academic performance. My friend’s favourite quote “You can bring a donkey to the lake but you can’t make it drink” seems to be rather applicable in this situation.
Likewise, the onus is on parents to know if your child needs help with his studies or with issues extra-curricular in nature. On a separate token, I don’t think sitting with your child as he studies for an hour or more everyday is going to matter. You’ll just be distracting him if you talk to him about his day at school, and accomplishing little by sitting silently by him. Engage your kid at mealtimes. Call his teacher for a short chat (and stay calm at all times).
It’s tough being a parent, I know. My mother has impressed this on me since I understood basic English.
There are also other costs to excessive tuition. And I don’t mean simple, monetary costs. While many letters have made it to the page to voice concerns over this issue, we certainly aren’t at the level of, once again, South Korea. There are new regulations and even patrols to ensure studying centres are not opened past 10 in the night. Two surveys, one by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, the other by the Korea Youth Counselling Institute, found that 43% to 48% of students have contemplated suicide. Do we want to step up to that level? I definitely hope not. But let us consider the alternative, where children do not have tuition, and stress over whether they are well-prepared enough for the coming exams.
Every Supply Creates Its Own Demand
I thought I should wrap up my points by asking the question that still hasn’t been addressed definitively. Is there really value to tuition? There must be some to it since it is always in high demand right? Howard feels that this is a case of market failure. I prefer to view it as dear UNESCO  has nicely put into words:
“The first reason is that in some settings supply creates demand. In these circumstances, tutoring exists because the producers make it available and recommend pupils to take advantage of the availability, and / or because the consumers find out the product is available and then decide to make use of it even though they would not have demanded it if the service had not been readily available”.
There certainly is imperfect information, with no standardised accreditation system or industry standards to abide by. Having taken over my brother’s tutee in Secondary 3 Math, and aiding him to be eventually exempted from the year end exams, I must say qualifications are not a good way to evaluate tutors too. All that glitters certainly isn’t gold, and in the same note I could well be a gold bar in mud. Tuition may not have given some children academic improvements by leaps and bounds too, but the attendance itself could have been giving the peace of mind that both parent and child needs. That, in itself, is a benefit.
Tuition Per Se May Not Be The Issue
We should not be too quick to ascribe a value to it. After all, tuition may, as Howard mentions, teach students how to study independently too, which take time to effect and may not eventually realise themselves in tangible academic scores. Education is, after all, a long term investment. I certainly do not enjoy the fact that at some centres, spoon-feeding of knowledge is all that’s done. It may create sponges of knowledge; squeeze once and most of it is gone. But this may be a short-term solution for late bloomers, which our education system is not all-encouraging towards.
My take? To be honest, the amount to be learnt at each level of education is constantly increasing, and tuition could just help you get that edge over others. After all, it was meant to be supplementary in nature. In that case, the benefit would outweigh the monetary cost. Overconsumption would thus cease to exist. While my reasoning seems pretty elementary, I think it should suffice as a counter to Howard’s opinion.
Perhaps we’ve got it all wrong about the inherent value of tuition. Perhaps. The toughest part at the end of the day however, is probably this: getting the right tutor.
The writer, Lee Jie Yang (Mr.), is a friend of both Kwan Jin Yao (Mr.) and Howard Chiu (Mr.). He used to pen a blog, The Sidelined Student, back when he was a little more carefree.
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 Changhui Kang (2007). Does Money Matter? The Effect Of Private Educational Expenditures On Academic Performance. Retrieved October 12, 2011, from http://www.fas.nus.edu.sg/ecs/pub/wp/wp0704.pdf.
 Mark Bray (2003). Adverse Effects Of Private Supplementary Tutoring. Dimensions, Implications And Government Responses. Retrieved October 12, 2011, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001330/133039e.pdf.