Singapore is known for providing high-quality education but how is it doing in terms of educational equity, or ensuring that every student is given the opportunity to maximize their educational potential?
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings on 15-year-old students’ math, science and reading skills are closely followed by educators and policymakers.
What some may not know is that the study also looks into equity issues, such as the relationship between social backgrounds and learning outcomes of students.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher said in 2013 that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity” (Ng, 2013).
So what is equity in education?
According to Dr Teo Tang Wee, an Assistant Professor from the Natural Sciences & Science Education Academic Group in NIE, equity is not to be confused with equality.
“Equality means everyone would have equal access to resources, but we know that is not possible,” says Tang Wee.
Even if all schools are similar, every student comes into the classroom with a different set of “capital”.
In explaining the different types of capital, Tang Wee makes reference to the OECD’s definition (OECD, 2008) of educational equity. It emphasizes two aspects: fairness and inclusion.
In a fair system, factors such as race, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status should not pose any obstacle to someone’s ability to achieve their best educational potential.
Tang Wee categorizes the factors into four types of capital (Bourdieu, 1986): cultural, social, symbolic and economic (see box story below).
Another dimension of equity is inclusion. No one should be excluded from an education that endows them with the literacy and numeracy skills that enable them to communicate well and perform the basic functions (such as counting change) in everyday life.
It is not just about being able to read and write, says Tang Wee. What is important is that all of us have the ability to gather and use information to make important decisions in our daily lives.
Equity in Singapore
Having spent some years overseas, Tang Wee thinks that Singapore is doing well on some fronts in terms of equity. For example, schools here are well-funded across the board. “This structure is much more equitable compared to other countries where some of the school funding comes from taxpayers who are living within the same district,” she says.
Describing herself as an equity researcher in Science education, Tang Wee shares, “My research has always been focusing on what I see as the marginalized groups – people whom we seldom talk about and research about.”
As can be seen from the other articles in this issue, such groups range from those with special needs, to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and even international students who may have to overcome numerous challenges to “fit in” the Singapore education system.
Tang Wee’s research focuses on academic tracking. Explicit forms of tracking would be high- stakes exams such as the Primary School Leaving Exam. But there can be implicit forms of tracking as well, such as curriculum differentiation.
“When we talk about tracking, we often talk about providing curriculum differentiation that caters to different needs. In my work, I’d like to highlight these more implicit forms of differentiation that can sometimes advantage certain groups of students over others.”
Structure and Agency in the Classroom
Along with other NIE researchers, Tang Wee embarked on the project “Examining Normal Academic/Technical Students Science Learning from a Sociological and Cultural Lens” involving 39 Singapore schools and 4,582 lower secondary Normal Academic (NA) and Normal Technical (NT) students.
Two schools were selected to be case-study schools. The researchers observed and video-taped two Secondary 1 and 2 NA and two Secondary 1 and 2 NT classes in each school, making it eight classes in total.
Tang Wee and her colleagues are looking out for the interplay of structure and agency in these classrooms. Structures can be physical (such as the seating arrangement in class), and social and cultural (such as classroom norms and rules).
Agency of teachers and students refer to their power to make decisions in the classroom.
“We are trying to identify in this OER study what the structures are and how the students and teachers are exercising their agency within these structures.”
My research has always been focusing on what I see as the marginalized groups – people whom we seldom talk about and research about.
– Teo Tang Wee, Natural Sciences & Science Education Academic Group
Part of the Solution
For Tang Wee, equity is also about every student having a voice and the chance to participate in class. But many teachers have little time to sit down and listen to students about their needs or their feedback about the teaching.
The research team decided to introduce co-generative dialogue (also see “Co-generating Possibilities in Classrooms” in this issue) in one of the case study schools. For this, a teacher, a researcher and a number of students sat in a group to discuss issues of concern to the students.
“We set the ground rules first,” says Tang Wee. Participants were told they should be authentic and open-minded. “The purpose of the dialogue was to highlight issues they were concerned about and propose actions for change. It’s not supposed to be a complaint session where they just tell us all the problems.”
The students suggested solutions which the researchers and teachers then implemented in the next few lessons.
What the researchers wanted was to give ownership of classroom issues back to the students. “It’s better that those solutions are coming from them than from us,” says Tang Wee. “Because of the generation gap, I doubt we really fully understand what is going on in the classroom!”
Predictors of Students’ Science Inference Skills
For the two case-study schools, the researchers also tested students thrice on their science inference skills at specific intervals during a year. They then followed up with a survey to find out more about the “science capital” of these students.
One significant predictor of the lower secondary NA and NT students’ science inference skill is having family members who encourage them to do well in science.
“This has important implication for policy making,” says Tang Wee. “It means that parents have to be more involved in the science education of their children if they want them to develop good science inference skills.”
Tang Wee also shares the main aim of her study – to find out and understand the many implicit, maybe even invisible forms of structure hindering the learning of their students.
“Are teachers aware of these things that are happening? We look at things which are often taken for granted to be true, things which are very explicit. But we unpack them and say, ‘Hey, there are these more complex and nuanced things happening, do you see it?’”