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Rethinking the meritocratic education system – the case for welfare

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Ministry of Education, Singapore

The Singapore government has long bragged that Singapore practises meritocratic values.  After all, they award generous scholarships to those who excel academically and it’s often true these people have a bright future in the country.  Indeed, a meritocratic model of governance seems like an ideal working model despite the criticism of some that it breeds elitism and turns academic life into a stressful rat’s race. 

For some time, critics have warned that the criteria for meritocratic judgement cannot simply be academic performance (since straight-A scholars have been known to flunk real life tests), as well as the fact that smart students tend to come from families whose parents are already well-to-do and educated to begin with.  Now a new line of reasoning may bolster the critics’ case.

The Washington Post published an article today reporting the results of a study showing that poverty impacts the cognitive facilities of the student and hence hinders academic performance:

Children raised in poverty suffer many ill effects: They often have health problems and tend to struggle in school, which can create a cycle of poverty across generations.

Now, research is providing what could be crucial clues to explain how childhood poverty translates into dimmer chances of success: Chronic stress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area — working memory.

Critics have long warned that Singapore’s over-emphasis on early indicators of academic performance of young students is premature, or that the economic situation of most of the lower-income families find themselves in often put these students under considerable duress which impedes their academic performance and hence lowers the likelihood that they could depend on good grades to pull their families out of poverty. 

Now evidence exists to support such a view.  Don’t be mistaken, though.  I’m not claiming that neither the education ministry nor schools provide sufficient financial assistance to students in terms of subsidising school fees, giving away used textbooks etc.  But what has been assumed implicitly was that the current meritocratic system offers everyone an equal to succeed so long as they performed well.  Sadly, as the article shows, this isn’t necessarily the case. What apologists of the existing education system were mistaken on was the impression that so long as you give the child sufficient financial assistance for their education, they would be judged solely on their academic merits.  If they can’t do well, it must be because they are lazy.  Or if they aren’t lazy it may be due to the fact that intelligence may reside in hereditary factors.  Unfortunately, a crucial factor was left unconsidered: stress.

For the new study, Evans and a colleague rated the level of stress each child experienced using a scale known as “allostatic load.” The score was based on the results of tests the children were given when they were ages 9 and 13 to measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as their blood pressure and body mass index.

“These are all physiological indicators of stress,” said Evans, whose findings were published online last week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The basic idea is this allows you to look at dysregulation resulting from stress across multiple physiological systems.”

The subjects also underwent tests at age 17 to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

“It’s critical for learning,” Evans said. “If you don’t have good working memory, you can’t do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary.”

When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, Evans said.

“The greater proportion of your childhood that your family spent in poverty, the poorer your working memory, and that link is largely explained by this chronic physiologic stress,” Evans said. “We put these things together and can say the reason we get this link between poverty and deficits in working memory is this chronic elevated stress.”

Indeed one may even argue that the meritocratic model of education may itself be exacerbating the problem, since children are placed under more stress to perform and succeed in Singapore’s highly competitive education system.  At the same time, what has been done to alleviate the living conditions of children whose parents work in lowly blue collar jobs, earning the bare minimum without the benefit of a minimum wage?  The government has long derided welfare as nothing more than a dirty word, but as the article shows, a lower standard of living and constant worry for the future well-being of the family may create the conditions which induces chronic stress which in turns impedes the ability of these students to do well.  They are hence stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Think of the children of elderly or middle-aged folks who collect cans and scavenge cardboard boxes for a living.  Has their poor and low standard of living (along with uncertainty for their future) prevented them from succeeding academically? Or the children of blue-collar workers, whose parents are not guaranteed the social safety net of a minimum wage, and whose jobs are easily outsourced to the thousands of migrant workers who enter our country’s borders every year?

Indeed the article concludes:

The findings indicate that education standards and other government policies that aim to improve poor children’s performance in school should consider the stress they are experiencing at home, Evans said.

“It’s not just ‘Read to our kids and take them to the library,’ ” he said. “We need to take into account that chronic stress takes a toll not only on their health, but it may take a toll on their cognitive functioning.”

Much has been said about how the ruling party has long treated its citizens to be nothing more than worker ants, constantly reminded that academic success at a young age is crucial to climbing up to a higher level of the socio-economic ladder.  Sadly, this may be nothing more than a pipe dream.

Written by defennder

April 6, 2009 at 8:17 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

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