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Teachers in Singapore assessed not based on students’ grades

International recognition

Singapore’s education today has received much praise and recognition internationally. Studies have shown that 98 percent of Singapore’s sixth-grade students achieve math standards more rigorous than the eighth-grade standards on the US National Assessment of Educational Progress Exam. It has also been observed that many of Singapore’s lower-achieving students are actually learning at levels higher than gifted-student curricula in US schools at comparable levels. All those achievements of Singapore’s education system are not possible without its dedicated and professionally trained teachers. Such teachers may not exist if Singapore does not have a mature system to develop and evaluate teachers. Hence, teacher evaluation on a consistent basis is indispensable in a good education system.

At the same time, parents’ attention has also been shifting from solely focusing on the growth of their children to the growth of teachers, which indirectly contributes to the nurturing of students. That is why teacher evaluation has come under the educational spotlight in recent years and the assurance from the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi that teachers are not assessed based on how well their students do in exams in a welcoming comment that signals a right direction of teacher assessment.

What’s so bad with grades-based assessment?

The non-inclusion of students’ exam grades in teachers’ assessment is important in setting the right incentive for teaching. Let us imagine what may happen with grades-based assessment. The teachers may be pressed into improving grades of students, compromising development in other areas. Extra-curriculum activities may be discouraged, in the name of preparation for exams. Civics lessons and other enrichment classes, which are essential to building character or nurturing personal hobbies, may be converted to conventional classes for examinable subjects. Students with higher grades may be favored by teachers or may be set as role models for the class, promoting a narrow definition of student excellence. All of the above scenarios are real possibility if the grades of students are linked to the pay of teachers. Perverse incentives may occur and the multiple aims of education in holistic development may be compromised as a result.

Besides compromising the aims of education, grade-based assessment also jeopardizes the fairness of assessment. Different classes consist of students with different academic ability and foundation. If the assessment of teachers is based on the final grades of students, teachers taking a lower-performing class will be disadvantaged. The final grades of students are not a good measure of the effort put in by teachers; an average teacher from a high performing class may not put in as much effort as a very dedicated teacher from a low performing class, yet may even achieve better results. Moreover, some suggest using the margin of improvement as a measure of teacher’s performance. That’s a better criterion, as it better reflects teachers’ effort. But still, the measure is not entirely accurate, as a ten percent improvement in grades from a high performing class may reflect less input from teachers compared to a ten percent improvement in grades from a low performing class. Such problems stem from the reliance of assessment on grades, or the changes of grades, which do not take into account the varying academic ability of classes. If such an assessment was adopted, teachers might fight for teaching better classes or at better schools, disadvantaging lower performing students who need more and better resources.

The current assessment model

Grade-based assessment is an easy, but inaccurate and unfair, method of evaluating teachers. What is the alternative? The current Singapore model is a good substitute, which is based on competencies. Competencies are a set of skills, attitudes or habits that are deemed as prerequisite or essential to the success at a particular job. It may sound vague, but such an assessment can be hugely accurate if the government is willing to invest in research. The research method Singapore used to develop its competency model was designed in the United States in the 1970s by Harvard University researcher David McClelland. Researchers select two groups of teachers, one that has displayed average performance, and another that has displayed outstanding performance. Researchers then use a structured interview technique called the Behavior Event Interview (BEI) to elicit detailed stories that reveal how very high performers differ from more lower-performing job holders, therefore deriving a set of competencies from the extensive interview process.

The assessment consists of competencies such as subject mastery, initiative, and partnering with parents. There is no direct reference to grades, but once all those competencies are developed, not only will students achieve better grades, but they will have stronger character, become better team players, exhibit greater leadership and grow as better citizens of the nation.

Paradigm shift

It can amount to a paradigm shift when we start to focus on development of teachers, in addition to development of children. Teachers are not always people who teach; they can also be taught and developed. The assessment is a good guide to continuous professional empowerment of teachers. To develop the nation, we need to develop the students. But we need to think one step further: we need to start with developing teachers who are ultimately responsible for what our students get in the classroom.

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