Two articles in The Sunday Times’s Think section were worth the read this weekend.
The 10 Per Cent Rule in Singapore?
At first glance, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond is full of praise for the Singapore education system (“Good Grade for Exam System”, June 16, 2013). She applauds the diversity of assessment methods (here); she agrees that tests and examinations – when designed properly – can be constructive (here); and she believes that the basic premise for the Primary School Leaving Examination is sound (here).
However, she does raise two questions: the age of children when they take the high-stakes examination, and “how the scores are being used to determine the academic route … in secondary school”.
The second contention was echoed in the Our Singapore Conversation session I had attended last month (here), with parents arguing that the entrance criteria to the secondary schools can be tweaked (for instance, geographical proximity was raised as a criteria that can be used for entry into schools). Professor Darling-Hammond’s recommendation for the use of “a child’s school experience and achievements as well as portfolios and interviews can be used” would sound familiar to many Singaporeans. The Direct School Admissions (DSA) exercise allows students (and most probably parents) to seek admission to a secondary school based on their accomplishments and talents, before the PSLE results are released. The same, however, cannot be said of admission exercises to the local universities, where grades matter most.
She has a further suggestion: the 10 per cent rule adopted in the Texas university system:
“She brings up the 10 per cent rule that the Texas university system has adopted where all public colleges and universities, including the highly selective University of Texas, Austin, must admit any Texas applicant who graduates in the top 10 per cent of his or her high school class”.
It does sound good in principle, because there would be greater diversity in the schools, and the evaluation goes beyond academic performance per se (leadership, co-curricular activities, community involvement). One of the immediate criticisms raised (and you can almost see it happening in Singapore, where distinctions between “top” and “neighbourhood” schools persist, here), would be the creation of perverse incentives. An Austin Review publication explained that “students and parents have no reason to attend rigorous high schools if they aspire to a state university in Texas”. In other words, to game the system, an individual with the resources would move to an inferior high school, to boost his or her college chances.
It is not hard to see this happening in Singapore, especially with the levels of inequality. Yet, is it necessarily a bad thing, if the scholastic crème de la crème are spread across the island, instead of being concentrated in that few centres? Maybe. Would it inspire mediocrity instead?
Books “Kino” Kinokuniya
The other was a piece by Miss Clarissa Oon, on the healthy growth of Books Kinokuniya in Singapore (“How Bookshops can Survive and Thrive”, June 16, 2013). Affectionately known as “Kino” – at least within my circle of reading friends – I thought it was interesting to read about how the Japanese chain has succeeded, where countless bookshops have failed. The growth of online reading platforms has clearly been a threat (I personally cannot stand staring at a screen), but Kino has been able to appeal to readers with “a sound business model and management that stresses quality and range of titles”.
What I think is also remarkable is how Kino has thrived in Singapore (great news of its fourth outlet in Jem at Jurong East, since it’s so near to school now), where the public libraries are nothing short of remarkable. The convenience and accessibility of these institutions have encouraged more Singaporeans to pick up a book, though one might contend that this love for books could have – in fact – contributed to the survival of Kino.
Against the background of less students taking Literature as a subject in schools (here), it is heartening to know that there are still bibliophiles around. Kino’s continued support for Singapore literature and texts – as Miss Oon lauds – is shown by how the bookstore has “never shied away from carrying weighty tomes critical of government policies or official history”. All for the better, I suppose, as Kino sustains its popularity in the long run.