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When I think about Singapore, I think of the curious accents of its citizens (speaking Cantonese and English). I think of school children in white button-down short sleeve shirts with starched collars because it is perpetually summer. But I can only imagine it being perpetually summer. I have never been there.

As a teacher and parent, I know Singapore as a math program which has yielded some of the highest scores on the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), a math test given every four years to measure the mathematic performance of students across the globe.

Singapore is  clear clean-cut corners and caning.

It is also pressure.

As a parent and teacher, two of my favorite movies since my children were born are Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid and its sequel, I Not Stupid Too. I like these movies because they remind me the extreme pressure for our children to succeed is not just outward (parents and teachers) pushing up, but also inner (the children themselves pushing out).

I’ve mentioned these films in past posts about what I’ve read and heard about the Singapore educational system and the concept of “appreciation education.” These films mirror to some degree my own remembrances of middle school in the US (as unclear and probably increasingly inaccurate as they are). The drills and quizzes. Sitting face front, pencil out. And the chaos of puberty.

What appeals to me about Jack Neo’s films is that they go deep enough to engage the audience but never too deep to threaten or make the audience uncomfortable. His skillful use of familiar daily occurrences to make his points about human nature and society remind me of sitcoms with their ability to draw humor from some of life’s incongruities.

The ends of both I Not Stupid movies are happy ones. The desire to work harder is enough for the protagonists enjoy the rewards of assimilating into the current culture. Those who fail to do so end up in Royston Tan’s 15: The Movie.

Royston Tan’s 15 is the antithesis of Neo’s I Not Stupid world. In 15, the kids don’t remain in the world of white button-down shirts. And where the parents in Neo’s world can see the error of their ways and acknowledge the efforts of their children, in Tan’s world parents do not exist outside of being spoken about. (There is a scene where one of the teens is being punished by his father but his father is on screen as just a booming voice and a thick hand.)

I enjoyed 15 because it is the antithesis of I Not Stupid. Estranged from common society and without direction, the protagonists in Tan’s film drift from day to day, situation to situation.  Unscripted for the most part like the lives of the protagonists it’s portraying, 15 tells the story of two pairs of friends. Connected by Shaun, a heavily tattooed boy with piercings, Melvin and Vynn (the first pair) spend their days hiding out in Vynn’s apartment making music videos. They also cope with Shaun leaving them for new friends. Shaun is now close friends with Erick (forming the second pair).

DYI style music videos help express the need the boys crave to be connected and empowered. These videos are sidebars breaking up lengthy dialogue while providing additional information about the story. 15 is visually clever and intense. By using  “video game like” titling and music video segments, and other present day visual conventions, Tan attempts to present the world as physically perceived from the eyes of emergent adolescents. The effect is intense.

When educators and parents admire the seemingly disciplined and diligent students of Asia, they have to consider the collateral damages. While the hard and fast Asian  “sink or swim” model of education has produced high test scores, it has also produced a subculture of disenfranchised teens.

This is not a condemnation of Asia educational policies. Unfortunately, I think there will always be those who just don’t quite fit in. I like the thinking behind Singapore Math. It makes sense to me to study fewer concepts, more deeply over the course of a semester than to study multiple concepts superficially. I like the idea of extending an activity beyond just the solution by asking: What else does the problem tell us?

However, a rigid “sink or swim” educational system has its victims – those who were unable to swim with the current drowned. 15 presents a few days in the lives of four drowning victims through a somewhat romanticized lens (but they are victims of the educational system nonetheless).

For some the 2009-2010 academic year has started. To help schools Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education has made “Race to the Top” grants available. In order to qualify for a grant states must make data on “student achievement” (i.e. test scores) available to use in principal and teacher evaluations. I have already written about the abuses this will spawn.

Arne Duncan believes that increased testing and greater attention to testing will make better schools and better students. I believe testing is necessary to assess knowledge and identify areas needing improvement. However, I also believe funding and merit should not be based on high test scores but on the strategies employed to serve those with low test scores.

Mr. Duncan’s unflinching focus on testing will eventually (though painfully) garner higher test scores. As the saying goes: “Practice makes perfect.” The more tests a student takes the better at testing he or she will become. Do strong test taking skills signify content knowledge? 21st Century Skills and global competitiveness require critical thinking and creative problem solving skills. How does an increased battery of tests provide for this?

A question to the Secretary:

Mr. Duncan, in your gluttonous appetite for test scores, who are getting caught in your teeth? Who are simply being spit out? And what’s going to happen for them? How are you going to reach the American Melvins, Shauns, Vynns, and Ericks?

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