How the new PSLE game is going to be played

Jul 14, 2016 04.00PM |

by Daniel Yap

I’VE already called the 2021 changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) system an exercise in game theory. What’s the game now? What are the new rules? And most importantly how is it going to play out?

I’ve got skin in the outcome of this game. More than money. My eldest will fall under the old system. My four (soon five) other children will play the new game.

Of course I have to first face the fact that a single dimension of change, such as the PSLE, can never be enough to reform what we hate about society. What we hate about society is what we hate about ourselves. It is deep inside – that compulsion to play kiasu even though you loathe it at the same time. We do it because lives are at stake.

Competition is a feature of this world. To pretend that it and its consequences don’t exist would be to fail to educate our children. We don’t want to eliminate competition but blunt its barbs for our children by creating a less risky outcome for them. And we want to temper competition with collaboration and cooperation – that philosophy that society is not red in tooth and claw, but can be greater than the zero sum of its parts.

Still, the new PSLE system solves a problem with the old game. It addresses the issue of chasing down every last point in the PSLE (now every 4-pointer is the same). It addresses the problem of students playing the zero-sum bell curve game.

The new PSLE system, as some rightly point out, is still a competition – the objective of the game is the same – parents must, by means foul and fair, get their kids into the “best” school they can possibly get them into, with “best” being the manifestation of the parent’s perception.

But here the game gets harder with the new system. Imagine a kiasu parent, bug-eyed and frantic, trying to determine which school is THE best school.

For example, a cohort of 2,000 4-pointers (or under-6-pointers, whichever definition of excellence you want) will fill 10 schools easily, distributing slightly for choice, probably 15. Empirically, all these students are of the same quality. Which of these schools is now the best? Answer: none/all. Whereas in the past the school with the highest cut-off points was THE best school, now everything becomes vague. MOE said that no school will likely have a 4-point cut-off.

You see, there is no universal “best” school in Singapore (except my school, because perception). MOE’s system of distributing resources and educators means that differences in teacher and facility quality across the nation are, frankly, imperceptible. But there are schools for which demand is higher. Why?

The problem is that there is demand, competition, to get into “better” schools. This demand exists because (says the marketer in me) of perception, built up by marketing: reputation, publicity, promises, positioning – the brand of a school. (Mind you, “brand name” schools are just that – they have actual marketing and comms departments within the school. Other schools mostly rely on teachers wearing five hats to manage the same job: Guess whose brand is more “flashy”?)

So as long as this strength of brands exists, as long as there is demand, then there will always be somewhere for kiasuism to be channeled to. I’ve wondered aloud to MOE about the impact of independent schools having their own marketing and branding teams – maybe the effect needs to be blunted more aggressively.

You know what else MOE could do? They could fiddle with their published cut-off points for schools. It doesn’t need to be “wrong” – all it needs to do is be vague. It can range from ceasing to publish cut-offs altogether, which will remove decision-making data from parents and increase risk (and therefore encourage risk averse school choices), to simply reminding parents (in bold, highlighted text) that the published cut-offs were based on last year’s results but liu lian bo bao jiak – maybe this year everything is different. Think twice before choosing.

What else can MOE do to mess with kiasu parents? Now not only is it pointless to chase the last point in PSLE, it also becomes possible for a large number of students to score top marks in any given year’s exam. Kids are no longer pitted against each other.

All MOE has to do (although they’ve said that they won’t) is set an easier PSLE exam and suddenly you will have a large proportion of students getting the perfect 4-point score. After that happens, and say 25 per cent of a cohort (9,000 students) qualifies for the cut-off to RI, RGS and ACS, who will dare risk it all and gun for only brand-name schools in the selection round?

MOE probably doesn’t even need to do anything like that. I predict that in a few years, we will see a batch of students with empirically better grades than their predecessors, since there is no longer a bell curve. This batch will dent the system of “elites” by distributing academically talented students across a broad range of schools. The peak of elitism will become wider (maybe 30 top schools instead of 10) and lower. When everyone’s elite, nobody’s elite.

Same goes for parents who want their kids to “hang out” with smart kids to make them smart (or with obedient kids to make them obedient). You can no longer tell where the smart kids are congregated. The batch at ACS/RI this year may just be lucky (and indeed they are, if they got in by ballot)! “Bad” schools will similarly blend into the mean as higher-scoring kids choose to attend schools located near their homes because the attraction and definition of elitism has faded.

Now all that remains is to do away with that unmeritocratic, elitist hangover called the affiliation system (and with it the Primary School alumni benefit). Maybe SAP schools as well, which favour Chinese speakers. The DSA now also becomes more questionable and will need tweaks, especially given RI’s miserable experience.

So now, MOE has tools to take kiasuism and use it to make kiasu parents avoid all-out competition. Kiasu parents will be their own demise (or irrelevance). Game theory predicts it, and the G’s slow but steady movement away from rewarding muggers will seal it.

The kiasuism won’t die for a while – it is tough to come to grips with reality. Kiasu parents will still pat themselves on the backs after sending their kid to (after too much tuition) some generally good school and convince themselves, their kakis and relatives that their kid went to “THE OMG BEST” school in the whole country. But whereas they may have been right before, they will now simply be consoling themselves.

The rest of us who live in reality will have a less stressful time of it, our kids will still get a good education and though the game plays on, the stakes have come down significantly.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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