Concerns and realities of tutoring and tuition centers in Singapore

The recent releases of the PISA and TIMSS results have highlighted again the high test scores of Singaporean students. With that notoriety come questions about how Singapore manages such a feat, as well as concerns, from both inside and outside Singapore, about the problems with too much attention and focus on test performance.  Notably, these concerns are expressed by government officials, educators, researchers, and parents and focus on some of the same issues that worry those in the United States and other countries.  As an article this past week in the Straits Times pointed out, concerns focus particularly on the amount of time many students spend in tutoring arrangements after school, during weekends and over school breaks and the stress and academic pressure that can result.

What does tutoring involve in Singapore?

To date, the research on tutoring in Singapore and its effects on both academic performance and students’ well-being remains scant (though there is some surprising evidence that tutoring may be correlated with worse test performance).  However, on my recent visit there, I had a chance to talk with several people who have studied tutoring arrangements as well as participated in them as teachers and students.  In many ways, those conversations reinforced things I knew in the abstract, but had not seen played out in practice:

  • Private companies, community organizations, and individuals offer a vast array of tutoring options

Tutoring arrangements include formal programs offered by a wide range of companies and community organizations as well as arrangements that parents and students make on their own to work with individual tutors. But the number and variety of commercial tutoring programs alone is staggering. The Parkway Center, a 13-story mall and office complex in Singapore, for example, offers a slew of learning programs for students.  On just one floor, families can find:

  • Excelearn Education – Offering “programmes for Mathematics and Science for various levels”
  • Chapter One Chinese — To help children appreciate and master Chinese
  • Wordsmiths Learning Centre – Specializing in English Language and the Humanities to “prepare students to sit for their examinations with confidence”
  • Intellect Learning Hub — Providing classes in English, Chinese, maths, and science at both the primary and secondary level
  • Phi Learning – Focusing on preparation for the PSLE and O-Levels in English and Chinese

To help families navigate this vast array, media publications and websites like theAsianparent, Epigami, kinderful, and tuitionary list or review some of the many commercial options.  Many of the reviews identify Learning Lab as one of the leading (and most expensive) private tuition centers.  With several campuses, Learning Lab looks more like an elite private school than an afterschool program.

While commercial programs cater to different groups and reflect different costs, many are out of reach of families with low and moderate incomes.  As one means of making tutoring more affordable for all, the community organizations that support the three main ethnic groups in Singapore also offer their own, subsidized tuition programs spread out over a large number of locations.  These organizations include the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), SINDA serving Singapore’s Indian community, and MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community).

  • Tutoring is really big business

It’s no surprise that tutoring is big business in Singapore as it is in other parts of the world.  In a previous post, I noted that in Singapore tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  That number, however, may not adequately reflect the investments parents and students make in smaller and individual tutoring arrangements. Only centers with 10 or more students need to register and private tutors only need to register when their income exceeds the 1 million dollar mark (– yes, there are about 10 of these “supertutors” in Singapore).

I was also struck by the competition for students and the aggressive marketing that often focuses on test performance.  Private companies in particular advertise the successes of their students not only on the high stakes exams but also in winning scholarships and gaining admission to private universities.  Learning Lab for example points out on their website: “Since our founding in 2001, we have established a reputation among parents, students and educators for consistently producing Singapore’s top students at the PSLE. Our alumni have been admitted into NUS, NTU, SMU, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the US, and Oxford. Several have garnered prestigious private and public sector scholarships, including half a dozen being awarded the Singapore Public Service Commission’s President’s Scholarship.”

  • Tuition centers also provide a wide range of enrichment activities

Tuition centers in Singapore provide programs designed to help students in school in general (and to improve their grades for example), to help students prepare for high stakes exams such as those at the end of sixth grade and at the end of secondary school; and to help meet the needs of specific groups of students such as those studying in International Baccalaureate Schools.  At the same time, many students in Singapore participate in a wide range of other activities outside of school, and there are also many “enrichment centers” offering classes in music, art, dance, sports, science and other activities that go far beyond test prep. For example, in addition to its many tuition centers, the Parkway Center also houses Joy Music StudioMusicaland Studios, Flute and Music Academy, HI Art Education, Dance Bollywood International, Dance Trilogy,  and Lions Taekwondo Academy.

What’s it like to participate in tutoring programs?

It is hard enough to get an overall sense of what tutoring and tuition arrangements look like in Singapore, but it is even more difficult to get a sense of what the experience is like for students and teachers.  Those I talked to about their own participation in tutoring or about their studies of tuition centers point to examples of programs that match the stereotype of “drill and kill” factories and “hothouse” environments, but point to others that provide a warmer environment where students can work in smaller groups and develop closer relationships with their teachers than they can during the regular school day. While some students participate in tutoring because their parents require it or out of fear they may fall behind peers who are getting extra help, others go by choice, often in a desire to be with their friends.  Some teachers may prefer to work in tuition centers or as private tutors.  In fact, a number of tuition centers have been started by former teachers.  Incentives for providing tutoring include the possibility of high pay, but some teachers also appreciate the chances to work individually or in small groups with students in ways that are difficult to do during regular school hours. Unfortunately, the centers designed to serve those with lower incomes may not have the resources to hire experienced teachers or sustain the smallest student-teacher ratios, creating significant problems that the system has to figure out how to address.

Will anything change?

Given the high demand for tutoring and academic support among parents and the continued high stakes exams and academic pressure, even with all the concerns, it is hard to imagine drastic changes in the tutoring landscape in Singapore in the near term even if education policymakers tried to discourage it. (For that matter, it’s also hard to imagine significant changes in the heavy investments of time and money made in tutoring in other countries like Hong Kong – where reports describe “big business tutoring centers” and explain how “’celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires”.)

Nonetheless, those in the tutoring industry in Singapore will have to respond as the Ministry of Education continues to press for a shift in focus toward 21st Century skills and makes adjustments to goals and testing (including introducing more computer-based testing). OECD is also making some changes in the content and format of the PISA tests that may trickle down eventually. The explosion of online and blended learning opportunities will also likely have some effect on tutoring and tuition centers, though it is hard to see how that would address concerns about undue emphases on testing or academic stress. As a consequence, the government in Singapore faces the challenge of trying to loosen the grip of testing and tutoring, at the same time that drastically changing the tests eliminates one of the key mechanisms that supports the alignment of an education system recognized as “high-performing.”

— Thomas Hatch

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