Blenheim Palace, Spring 2013
Blenheim Palace, Spring 2013

Teacher accountability policy and sociocultural context: A cross-country study focusing on Finland and Singapore

Thesis for the PhD in education at the University of Cambridge; supervised by Panayiotis Antoniou and Ricardo Sabates. Available for download from the University of Cambridge repository.

In this thesis, I address two polarised debates in education policy: how teachers should be held accountable, and whether ‘best practices’ from high-performing education systems should be adopted in other countries. I construct a conceptual framework that maps the intended effects of teacher accountability instruments on student outcomes, via changes in teacher motivation. In this framework, the efficacy of any teacher accountability instrument depends partly on its compatibility with sociocultural context. This is partly because an accountability instrument will only influence a teacher’s motivation if the teacher regards the instrument as sufficiently meaningful, legitimate, or otherwise persuasive—and perceptions of meaning and legitimacy can be shaped by sociocultural patterns. To test this framework, I draw on two sets of empirical sources. Firstly, I use multilevel modelling to analyse cross-country survey data on education (e.g. PISA) and culture (e.g. the World Values Survey). I find that the relationship between teacher accountability instruments and student outcomes in these datasets varies with one aspect of sociocultural context, i.e. the strength of adherence to civic norms. Secondly, I analyse semi-structured interviews that I conducted with 12 lower secondary school teachers in Finland and 12 in secondary school teachers in Singapore. I find that teacher accountability instruments can have considerable effects (and side effects) on teacher motivation. However, interview participants’ responses to accountability instruments are strongly influenced by sociocultural context, and Finland’s and Singapore’s contrasting but comparably effective approaches to teacher accountability are each compatible with their respective sociocultural contexts. Based on these findings, I argue that the efficacy of teacher accountability instruments is contingent on sociocultural context (among other factors). Consequently, an accountability instrument from a top-ranked education system may have null or negative effects if transplanted elsewhere. Instead, teacher accountability policymaking needs to accommodate local sociocultural patterns. To my knowledge, this is the first study to combine cross-country educational and cultural surveys to explore the relationship between teacher accountability and sociocultural context. It is also the first study to conduct a fieldwork-based comparison of teacher accountability in Finland and Singapore.

From drills to skills: Cultivating critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration through Malaysian schools (2016)

Working paper written during a fellowship at the Penang Institute in Kuala LumpurPresented at the St Catharine’s College Graduate Symposium, University of Cambridge, Feb 2017, and the Malaysia-Singapore Research Conference, University of Cambridge, March 2017. 

What policy approaches can help Malaysian primary and secondary schools to cultivate the cognitive and interpersonal skills that students need today? Since the 1980s, Malaysian policymakers have been attempting to shift the education system away from exam drills towards holistic skills development, but success has been elusive. In this paper, I focus on a set of skills called the Four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. I examine why these skills are vital for the future well-being of the country and of individual students; and how such skills are cultivated in school systems elsewhere. Next, I evaluate the current state of skills cultivation in Malaysian schools, using (a) TIMSS and PISA microdata; and (b) policy documents, news reports, and social media posts on recent skills-related policies (PBS, PT3, HOTS questions in exams, and i-THINK mind maps). I identify three systemic patterns that hinder skills cultivation in Malaysian schools: a preoccupation with public exam results, an excess of paperwork-heavy directives that consume teachers’ working hours, and an atmosphere of cynicism and blame among education stakeholders, compounded by frequent policy change. Finally, I propose a set of policy approaches—covering student assessment, instructional tools, school organisation, and the teaching profession—that could work within these systemic constraints to cultivate the Four Cs among Malaysian students.

Available for download on the Penang Institute website.

Competing voices: Authoritarian regimes and middle-class mobilisation in Malaysia and Singapore, 2013.

Thesis for the MPhil in comparative government at the University of Oxford; supervised by Nancy Bermeo. Presented at the 27th ASEASUK Conference, Durham University, September 2012.

This paper argues that antiauthoritarian pressures have intensified in Malaysia and Singapore because of the growth of a middle class that is neither ideologically nor economically appeased by the respective regimes. I use a decision model that draws from Albert Hirschman’s work on exit, voice, and loyalty and Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification. Quantitative and qualitative data methods include logistic regressions (Stata) of the Asian Barometer Survey and textual analysis of historic trends in newswire articles on public demonstrations (LexisNexis and Factiva).

Contact me if you would like a copy.

Lessons from English-medium science and mathematics instruction in Malaysia (PPSMI) (2011)

Thesis for the BA in political economy at Williams College; supervised by Sam Crane and Lara Shore-Sheppard. 

This paper is a policy analysis of PPSMI, a 2003-2009 policy requiring all public schools in Malaysia to teach science and mathematics in English rather than a local language. I argue that the unilateral urgency with which then-Prime Minister Mahathir overrode opposition to PPSMI precluded the consensus formation and educational planning that could have sustained the policy’s momentum. The analysis comprises: (i) a survey of the history and politics surrounding PPSMI; (ii) a case study of the implementation of PPSMI, based on 25 interviews with educators, students, and others who had direct experience with the policy; and (iii) statistical analysis (OLS, weighted LS, and fixed effects in Stata) of student achievement in TIMSS and national exams.

Available for download through the Williams College library.

Combating corruption in Pakistan: The power of public information and technology (2011)

Group capstone project for the BA in political economy at Williams College, with Ayyaz Ahmad, Diego Flores, and Asad Liaqat; supervised by Cathy Johnson and Nicholas Wilson. 

This paper proposes civil society and government strategies for mitigating the information asymmetries that drive both the incidence and perception of public sector corruption in Pakistan. We use political and economic theories of corruption; a comparison of anti-corruption strategies; and interviews with experts from government, international agencies, think tanks and universities in Washington, D.C., and Islamabad.

Contact me if you would like a copy.

The wage-productivity question and women in the workforce: A labour statistics approach for the Penang state government (2009)

Written during an internship at the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute, Penang; supervised by Chan Huan Chiang. Published in Pilot studies for a new Penang (2010), ed. Ooi Kee Beng and Goh Ban Lee, Singapore: ISEAS; Penang: SERI, p. 251-273.

This paper analyses Penang’s labour market infrastructure and draws on best practices in other countries to propose policy solutions for inefficiencies in labour productivity and female labour-force participation. Primary sources include the Department of Statistics’ Labour Force Survey and the Ministry of Human Resources’ Electronic Labour Exchange.