Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2021
Sir, my daughter Ella started her primary one journey last month. It has not been an easy transition for her. In her first week, she entered school every morning in tears. It was difficult saying goodbye to her at the gate.
But it was comforting for us to know that the teachers were there. I was peeping through the fence as we parents often do and I saw the teachers holding Ella’s hand, offering her a tissue to wipe her tears and showering her with love during this difficult period.
I saw how this wasn’t just about teaching but it was a labour of love. Every morning, the principal and teachers were at the gate cheerfully saying good morning to the students as they arrived. We received phone calls from teachers updating us on Ella and we had zoom calls with the teachers and other parents too.
I thank the teachers for being there for our children, for providing much needed care and for their dedication. I thank them for being teachers.
Sir, many people have asked me why my eyes are so red and about my eye bags. In fact, Minister Indranee was asking me about this during our break earlier and she said I now look like a mad dinosaur. I have been called many things but first time I met dinosaur. It’s been a difficult primary one journey for me too, waking up so early every morning to send Ella to school.
Sometimes, it feels like I’ve just fallen asleep and its time to wake up. I guess I had a glimpse of what it is like being a teacher, waking up so early every morning. But a glimpse also because I’m sure teachers wake up much earlier than me.
It’s been said before, but it isn’t said enough: Teachers have a tough job, and I thank them again for their loving role in nurturing our next generation.
We have emerged stronger from this pandemic also because of our teachers. During the pandemic and circuit breaker, they worked doubly hard. Teaching physically in classroom and virtually. They were out there while we kept ourselves safe at home.
There are things we can and should do to make their job a little better, and that is what I will discuss today.
Progress for our students
Mdm, let me start by also thanking MOE for its reforms in recent years, which have made education a more nurturing experience.
We stopped reminding students of how they are ranked in both class and level.
We stopped grouping them into form classes based on academic abilities.
We stopped comparing students to their peers when grading the PSLE.
The message to students has been clear: Focus on your own learning. Don’t be distracted by how others are doing.
As then Education Minister Ong put it: “Learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline you need to master for life”.
I agree. And indeed, we have done a lot to help our students get rid of the distractions and focus on their own learning. But I feel we have not done enough for our teachers.
It seems contradictory to me that teachers tell their students that students are no longer ranked and compared relative to their peers while they themselves are ranked and compared relative to other teachers.
Sir, in the past six months, I have spent time listening to what teachers have to say.
The Singapore Teachers’ Union surveyed about 1,200 teachers and organised a series of closed-door dialogues where teachers of all levels spoke candidly about their experiences. I had the privilege to hear some of their conversations and experiences.
I left with a renewed appreciation for the genuine passion our teachers have for teaching. The feedback that the teachers raised at these sessions were ultimately because they want to be better teachers for their students.
But I also left with some worry. Large numbers of them expressed concerns about their appraisal system. Over 80% of teachers and about 70% of Reporting Officers (ROs) agreed that ranking is not the best way to appraise all job-holders.
Today, I will share four proposals to tweak and refine the appraisal system. These proposals reflect concerns on the ground, based on survey data by the Union and personal anecdotes.
I am not proposing to throw the baby out with the bath water. I am suggesting that we make the appraisal system more standardised, transparent, fair and formative. This will better support our teachers to do their best work.
Let me take this opportunity to thank all civil servants for their essential work. My speech is about teachers because each of them influences tens and hundreds and thousands of young minds in their daily work.
But it does not stop here. Starting from teachers my hope is that the change in the appraisal system would flow through to the rest of the public service.
My first proposal is to standardise the appraisal process and require schools to follow it.
While about half of the teachers surveyed felt there was some objectivity in the system, about three quarters of teachers surveyed agreed that appraisals should be based on standardised criteria.
Currently, teachers go through a two-step appraisal process. First, the teacher’s RO assesses the teacher. Second, the RO takes this assessment to a Ranking Panel of senior staff members. The Ranking Panel then decides on the rank and grades of all teachers in the school.
How do all these people decide what grade a teacher really deserves? As MOE has shared, it provides guidelines and conducts training to advise on best practices.
But the stories shared by teachers reveal that current guidelines and training are not robust enough to ensure that the appraisal is standardised.
At the first stage of assessment by a RO, teachers report that subjective and irrelevant considerations are sometimes taken into account in the assessment.
One teacher said that some ROs prefer ‘Yes’ men. “If you are one who asks questions and give alternate suggestions, you are deemed to be uncooperative and calculating”.
Another teacher said that their RO favours staff who are his friends or used to work with him in other schools.
It should worry us that some teachers feel this way.
Sir, even if the RO thinks that a teacher is good and the teacher has met or exceeded his or her targets, this doesn’t mean that the teacher will get a good grade. They have to fight for the teacher at the Ranking Panel.
Many ROs, themselves, feel frustrated by the Ranking Panel. More than half of the ROs said that members of the Ranking Panel have an unequal say. They flag the role of personalities and politics.
One RO said that those on the panel tend to play up their own teachers while criticising others so that they themselves are ranked as being effective.
Another RO fretted about retaliation, saying that to speak up for unfairly ranked teachers means to risk “suffering the same fate”.
Again, we should be concerned that some ROs feel this way.
Our teachers are doing their best for the students and many do want to receive constructive feedback so that they can take steps to improve.
However, the current process means that the outcome may not simply be a reflection of a teacher’s performance and irrelevant considerations come into the picture.
I understand the challenges of evaluating a teacher’s work. I also understand that MOE has frameworks in place, such as Key Result Areas for each job level describing key competencies and qualities to achieve.
But there is more that we can do to standardise the process.
First, MOE can provide greater clarity to its guidelines and provide more granularity. For example, Key Result Areas currently tell teachers what “good” looks like.
Just like the detailed marking rubrics used for students, these Key Result Areas should be broken down by grade so that teachers know what are the specific standards required to achieve an A, B, C and so on.
Clearer appraisal standards given to ROs and Ranking Panels make it harder for subjective and irrelevant considerations to enter into decision-making.
Second, MOE should formalise its guidelines on teacher appraisal as requirements.
Good guidelines are not so useful if they can be ignored or circumvented. Teachers and ROs alike said that the appraisal process varies sharply from school to school.
Some schools have robust and objective processes in place. Other schools may have weaker processes which allow for more subjectivity.
MOE has said that its policy on teacher appraisal seeks to balance between consistency across schools and discretionary judgment by the school.
This balance is currently tilted towards discretionary judgment. These stricter standards will move us towards consistency, limit biases and emphasise the performance of teachers.
This isn’t just about what I think is right. It’s what the vast majority of teachers think is right: again about three quarters of teachers surveyed agreed that appraisals should be based on standardised criteria.
My second proposal is that MOE enforces a clearer and more consistent feedback policy for performance appraisals.
Almost 80% of teachers surveyed did not feel that the process of ranking has been made transparent to them.
Teachers don’t know how to improve if they don’t understand how and why they got their grade. Transparency is crucial.
Currently, the feedback policy that schools must follow when conducting their annual appraisal exercise are merely guidelines. These guidelines may not have been successful in helping teachers understand the ranking process.
When we spoke to teachers to understand why they see the process as opaque, two main reasons cropped up.
The first reason is because information was not proactively offered to some of them.
One teacher said, “The grades were never explained to me for the years I joined service”.
The second reason is that even when some teachers asked about the process, they are given no explanation.
One teacher sought to understand why they received that grade, but their RO said that there was no way to discuss the performance grade.
There are many more stories like these.
How can anyone do better if they don’t know what they are doing wrong? I think we can all empathise with how frustrating it must be to be in a situation like this.
Again, there is more we can do. MOE can implement a standard procedure for how schools respond when teachers request feedback and clarifications about their grade.
Second, this standard procedure needs to be enforced. As the data shows, a large majority of teachers currently see the appraisal exercise as lacking in transparency. We must make proper communication mandatory and enforce this.
Third and finally, we can work with teachers to strengthen MOE’s communication policies. We can implement a whistleblowing mechanism for teachers to use when their schools are failing to abide by MOE’s communication policies on appraisal.
Of course, this mechanism must include measures to protect teachers from retaliation within their schools.
Together, these measures will foster a more transparent system where our teachers will always know how to do better, and this means a better education system for our children.
Third, I propose that we remove the quota for each grade. This means a teacher’s grade would no longer be affected by the limited number of As, Bs, Cs and Ds.
Close to 80% of teachers surveyed strongly agreed with this proposal. We can see how the quota system can distort incentives.
Let me explain this from two directions.
At the very top, each school can only give out a very small percentage of As and Bs every year. Let’s call this the “good quota”. This means it’s not enough to be a terrific teacher; you have to be more terrific than everyone else.
The good quota rewards you for being a big fish in a small pond. However, it is a disincentive for being in a school where there are people better than you, whom you can learn from.
The quota also hurts those at the bottom. 5% of each school’s teachers must be graded C-, D or E. Let’s call this the “bad quota”. This means that even if you are a good teacher in a school overpopulated with super good teachers, the quota may still force you to receive a terrible grade.
Again, the system discourages you from surrounding yourself with the best of the best.
The quota system may also be applied in ways unrelated to a teacher’s performance.
One teacher said that some department heads agreed to spread out the bad quota across departments by “pre-selecting” a few teachers from each department to get bad grades and then fulfilling the prophecy by assigning unimportant tasks to these teachers.
The bad quota would not be so painful if the bad grades were, in fact, not that bad. Indeed, MOE has said the C- grade is not an adverse grade.
But the reality is those receiving C- grades and below face a host of punitive measures, including ineligibility for promotion for three years and ineligibility for Professional Development Leave.
Minister Lawrence has said that schools have the flexibility for assigning grades. However, in practice, virtually all schools had teachers with C-, D or E grades, as Minister later shared.
This may be because of the additional paperwork, scrutiny, and justifications needed to exercise that flexibility.
I propose we remove the quotas. Let schools assign grades based on a standardised process, as I proposed earlier.
Over 80% of teachers surveyed supported the removal of the quota. The risk of fiscal imprudence is limited, as each school is given a fixed quantum of monies for performance bonuses.
Standardising the appraisal process as well as the existing practice of having a Cluster Superintendent advise each Ranking Panel are both powerful checks to guard against grade inflation.
MOE would not be alone in this shift. Some of the most successful companies in the world have dropped relative ranking and moved towards more flexible performance management systems. Amazon announced in 2016 that it would drop its stack ranking system.
Even General Electric, the American conglomerate where stack ranking was popularised in the 1980s, has dropped it. Its current CEO said he prefers “reviews that candidly tell an employee where they are not measuring up and what they need to do to improve, without rigidly adhering to certain percentages”. General Electric has since shifted to a system that emphasises continuous dialogue and shared accountability.
I also propose that we remove punitive measures for the C- grade. 75% of teachers surveyed agreed with this.
Performance management should be formative, not punitive. Teachers who have struggled should not be denied the full resources to grow or the full prospect of being rewarded. Three years with 0% chance of promotion is enough to make anyone lose interest in their profession. Why would we disincentivize hard work like that?
What I hope for is that our teachers spend more time improving their own performance and aspire to become better teachers, instead of spending time worrying about how they are compared to others.
Sir, I am not the first MP to speak on this. This has been a long fight by MP Denise Phua and former MPs Zainal Sapari and Intan Mokhtar.
Dr. Intan said previously that our “appraisal system is quite summative” and spoke about the need for a more formative approach to the appraisal.
MP Denise spoke about the negative aspects of forced ranking, speaking of instances when employees get pushed up in terms of their ranking because of very vocal supervisors who were able to speak up for them at ranking sessions.
In the last few months, I have heard these exact concerns surfaced repeatedly by our teachers.
Mr. Sapari, a veteran in the education service, first as a teacher, then a school principal, then a cluster superintendent. He asked for the forced ranking system to be abolished, and instead adopt a criteria-based approach for ranking.
Mr. Sapari, Dr. Intan and Ms. Phua have been speaking up about this since 2018.
In a previous debate, Ms. Phua said, “to run a race whereby only a few win the trophy might be a race that, I think, the Minister has been asking for us not to run. We should run races where as many as possible can make it to the finish line, and as many as possible can meet a good or great performance standard”.
We all want what Ms. Denise Phua is calling for but it is simply not possible under our current appraisal system.
Let me end with a quote as always, “A teacher plants the seeds of knowledge, sprinkles them with love, and patiently nurtures their growth to produce tomorrow’s dreams”.
Sir, as teachers work hard to create a nurturing environment for our children, let’s also create a nurturing environment for them.
Let’s make our appraisal system more standardised, transparent, fair and formative. The surveys show that majority of teachers support this call.
But Mdm, I know that our performance management system of stack ranking is a sacred cow. We have used this system for decades. But for once, I’m not asking for a scared cow to be slaughtered.
As a vegetarian, I very much prefer that. I’m asking for us to look after this sacred cow better and for our appraisal system again to be more standardised, transparent, fair and formative. With a strong, engaged and empowered teaching workforce, we will continue to emerge stronger.
Watch the speech here.