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What can school systems learn from Singapore?

Our Deputy Director, David Harris, visited Singapore in October 2015 with a diverse group of education leaders from Massachusetts. They visited schools and met with system leaders involved in teacher and leader preparation among others. Here are his observations and thoughts.

Mural on the wall of the National Institute of EducationSingapore is wildly successful having grown from poverty to the 3rd highest per capita GDP in the world in its short 50-year history. In no small part this success is due to its education system: international test scores are consistently at the top, dropout rates are low and there are jobs for all graduates with a national unemployment rate that hovers around 1%. Building on three earlier phases that focused on “Survival”, “Efficiency” and “Ability-driven” education, the fourth phase of the Singapore education strategy is focused on “Student-Centered, Values-Based” education, and 21st Century skills are a large part of the rhetoric. Indeed there is plenty to learn from how Singapore approaches education, much of which they learned from the US and other school systems:

  • Teachers as nation-builders: teachers are expected to be creators of knowledge, facilitators of learning, architects of learning environments, shapers of character and leaders of educational change.
  • Mastery focus with pathways for growth: there are clear rubrics against which teachers are being measured (the Current Estimate of Potential or CEP) and educators are given feedback three times a year on their progress. Students too are assessed in formative and summative ways so students and parents know precisely where they stand and what they need to work on.
  • Networked learning communities by subject, role and professional interest: Peers observe each other’s classroom, share teaching resources and collaborate to improve their practice
  • Focus on values and Social Emotional Learning: designed to put the community and the nation first in Singapore, communicating and modeling consistent values and norms, while respecting and embracing the four distinct cultures that make up the country, reduces tension and promotes collaborative learning among students and teachers. Contributing to the teaching profession through mentoring, collaborating and modeling, is not only valued but is essential for promotion.
  • Mother Tongue education: while English is the primary language in the country and in all content classes, it is required that each student learns his or her mother tongue in school as well (and there are three of them) which fosters respect for cultural differences.
  • Principals are the key: They are carefully selected and groomed and are deeply trusted to tailor implementation of the Singapore values to their school’s context. In their final six months of pullout training (right before assuming a principalship) new leaders learn to be values-based, purposeful, innovative and forward-looking in their roles of people leadership, strategic management and working in a complex environment. They also develop a global perspective fostered by continuous exposure to, and inquiry into educational and economic systems around the world. The fact that principals can be assigned anywhere, and are moved every 5-7 years, actually gives them the incentive to build school cultures that are not principal-dependent and embody a consistent set of values and beliefs.
  • Rethinking resources regarding class size: John Hattie, in the book Visible Learning, pointed out that class size is not a key factor in student growth, it is what happens in the class that drives growth. Singapore has chosen to allow class sizes to be large but invests heavily in technology, training and support staff within each school so that the teaching practice maximizes student learning.
  • Experimentation and assessment leading to broader adoption: Innovation is encouraged but broad-scale changes are only introduced after being researched and assessed in the context of the system goals. When new initiatives, such as PLCs are implemented on a broad scale, they communicate the what, the why, the when and the who and consequently adoption is swift and highly impactful
  • Continuous improvement: every educator and leader speaks of continuous improvement – in their preparation, in their practice, in their partnerships, in their processes and in the outcomes they produce.
  • Coherence: at the end of the day it is the tight alignment of the vision, goals and strategies throughout the system that ensures deep impact. When all crew-members row in the same direction, a boat flies along.

As background, Singapore is a small city-state – 5.5 million people, 475,000 students (prior to their university, junior college and polytechnic institutes of higher education), 365 schools, 33,000 educators and 34 students in an average class. They spent about $8.7 billion US in 2013 (including teacher training and all branches of the ministry of education) or $18,300 per student.

From the inception of the country, education has been recognized as one of, if not the most important strategy in building the Institute of Technical Education lobbynation, and to Singapore education is a non-negotiable investment not an expense. The teaching profession is lauded and getting a spot in the only teacher preparation program (run by the National Institute of Education, a state agency) is highly competitive and requires high achievement, interviews and demonstrations of the desired characteristics and values. Once selected, tuition is free, a job is guaranteed (although the Ministry of Education determines your placement) and salaries are commensurate with engineers with the opportunity for bonuses exceeding 25% of base salary for top performers. Once on the job, teachers get 100 hours of Professional Development per year, a reduced workload in their first year (to 80%), extensive mentoring from a senior teacher and the ability to advance either as a lead teacher focused on pedagogy, a specialist in curriculum or other areas, or through the school leadership track.

What makes the system work, very much like the best US charter networks, is the coherence within the system: everyone is committed to a single vision for student success (often written on the walls of the institution), the systems for developing and supporting teachers and school leaders are completely aligned, research proven programs such as DuFours’ PLC work are implemented with a high degree of fidelity, administration is handled by business managers so the leadership can focus is on instruction, there is autonomy within each school to tailor the curriculum and instruction to the student population, and the values they instill in the students are as important as their academic achievement. Also, much like successful charter networks, teachers can expect to work 11 hours per day, must become expert in two subjects and take on many extra duties beyond student loads of up to 200. It is perhaps no wonder that in this environment students outperform most other educational systems.

Besides tremendous workloads for teachers (that lead about 4% to leave each year, often when they start families) there are some other drawbacks to the Singapore system and some aspects we might question. Singapore considers itself a meritocracy and uses high stakes and therefore high stress tests, culminating in the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) taken at the end of 6th grade, to track students into different secondary schools. These secondary schools have different expectations, foci and supports which allow the students’ experience to be better tailored to their needs and learning capacity, although once again these paths culminate in high stakes British GCE exams (N, O or A levels depending on the pathway). Many parents and students rightly perceive that their opportunities are immediately limited at the age of 12. In all fairness the system does allow late bloomers to transfer to faster tracks, much like our community colleges provide a pathway for some to enter 4-year universities, although those transfers tend to be the exceptions not the rule. A side effect of the PSLE test has been the development of a tutoring industry that by some accounts makes up 3% of the country’s GDP. If nothing else this alone drives up the academic achievement of all students.

While the system does seem to teach even struggling students, because the lowest performers on the international PISA tests score higher than 70% of US student, the ability to meet the needs of all learners is questionable. The approach is to have every student “achieve their full potential” (as opposed to “No Child Left Behind”) and, with classes of 40 students and a style of instruction that emphasizes accuracy of content, few are trained to support struggling learners or students with special needs. Moreover there is little time (1 hour per week) built in for any specialized instruction. There are actually a few special schools for those with extreme disabilities or those with consistently low academic performance, an approach the US has chosen to eschew publicly although the services are available privately, and one question that remains is the degree to which the pedagogy that is being developed to serve those students will be applied more broadly in the future.

Perhaps the most common criticism of the system is the lack of focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism but those are not the characteristics that have driven Singapore’s success. Singapore has grown so dramatically because they look at where the global economy is going and identify how they can fit in and drive the growth throughout Asia. They invest heavily in sending educators out to both learn about and support the growth of other countries so when those countries are looking for a partner to fuel their growth Singapore is the obvious candidate. What Singapore does value is ensuring that every citizen has a meaningful job (migrants from Malaysia tend to fill in the really low level jobs) so education is geared to finding a suitable role for everyone. While perhaps limiting opportunity for some, this approach has reduced or even eliminated poverty and crime and has allowed people from those four distinct cultures to coexist and thrive together while the US poverty gap continues to increase and racial tensions persist.

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  • Guest - R Steven Gumbay

    I find it odd no comments here, so will be the first. It is extremely important to fully understand the impact of culture on learning. I agree there are things that can be learned from Singapore's education system (and the same can be said of any system that seems successful), yet cultural values have tremendous Impact on what is prioritized in the system and what is valued. What is learning? That can be defined in many ways from different cultural contexts and then must be applied to that society. Making comparisons between the U.S. and Singapore is not a valuable venture at all. As someone who has taught and lead departments in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I have a great deal of respect and understanding of the impact of culture on education - something I could not fully appreciate without those experiences. I saw teenagers who were suicidal, neurotic in their stress for achievement, and who completely lacked childhoods due to the pressures of being highly successful in school. I had a set of parents extremely upset their son wanted to be an artist in Taiwan. How could they 'save face' when such knowledge was leaked to other families. Fortunately for them and their son, they listened to impassioned educators saying he hd an innate talent that must be nurtured. He is now a very successful and happy artist in the U.S. I have many such stories. My suggestion here is to be cautious about making comparisons. Rather, see what -practices might be implemented and successful in other contexts, but- be respectful and mindful of the role of cultural heritage and values.