Which winning ideas could the U.S. steal from Singapore?

Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world, according to international assessments. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk about its performance. United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten visited in 2012 and her counterpart at the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, has praised its teacher training. And in 2012, Singapore was featured in the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession as a country that many places – including America – could learn from.

School in Singapore. (Photo: Rosipaw)

School in Singapore. (Photo: Rosipaw)

In light of all this hype, I spent the past week in Singapore visiting schools to find out why they are so successful. But, not surprisingly, there’s no big secret or magic trick that the United States could simply copy tomorrow. Rather, my impressions were of a nation where education is respected, where educators and administrators think critically about their jobs and the qualities they want their students to develop and where self-reflection is ingrained. Those are qualities already found in many American schools, and that reformers are trying to spur in others.

But some of Singapore’s latest strategies go beyond or challenge some of the most popular ideas right now for improving American schools. At the same time, it’s important to remember the vast differences between the two countries that make it difficult to transfer ideas. Here are my main takeaways from my conversations with educators, students and education officials:

- Singapore is looking to revamp their standards. As most states in America continue the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, an internationally benchmarked guide laying out what students are supposed to learn in each grade in math and English, Singapore also has changes planned. But education officials there are more concerned about some less tangible skills, like collaboration and creativity, and coming up with ways to systematically introduce those into the curriculum. In theory, the end goals of Common Core and Singapore’s newest push are similar. They both aim to create individuals with critical thinking skills who can thrive in a modern economy. But as we try to copy Singapore’s methods, like their math sequencing, educators there are already moving on to new ideas.

- Lots of Singaporean students are stressed. The country is looking for ways to reduce this and trying to decrease the emphasis on grades and test scores. The Ministry of Education is trying to reduce the emphasis on the primary school exit exam, which all students have to take to determine which secondary school they will attend, for instance. But many people told me one of the biggest challenges will be changing the mindset of parents. Not all students in Singapore worry endlessly about exams, but several people said that for those that do, parents are a primary source of their anxiety.

- Singapore is small. As several people pointed out to me, if you drive for an hour in any direction, you arrive at the water. While some people told me the small size of the country has disadvantages for education – it severely limits options for field trips for instance – it also has its benefits. Most notably, the country’s size, along with the fact that the schools are run by a centralized authority, allows the Ministry of Education, the National Institute of Education – which trains every teacher in the country – and the schools to be in close communication about research and new strategies. New programs can be implemented quicker and the National Institute for Education can easily keep track of what is actually happening in classrooms to tweak its offerings when needed.

- The schools are big. Half a million students are enrolled in the island’s schools, but most schools have student populations of more than a thousand – even at the primary level. With that many students, classes of 35 to 40 are typical, but nothing seemed disorderly. The atmosphere in the classrooms that I visited switched between formal and relaxed. Students bowed to greet visitors and again to thank them for coming. They stood up to speak whenever called upon, and chatter while a teacher was talking was almost nonexistent. At the same time, though, laughter was common. Teachers would gently tease students and discussion was highly encouraged.

Not everything Singapore does would apply to our much larger, decentralized education system and not everything they do should be emulated. But there are some inspirations we could draw from the country, such as trying to get more high-performing students into the classroom as teachers or being more explicit in the character qualities we want students to develop – without obsessing over how to measure them.

POSTED BY ON February 13, 2014

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Edward Crowe

Interesting coverage of education in Singapore. But before we run away with the “lessons” of Singapore, it ought to be pointed out that it’s one thing for students and parents in a high achieving country to be “stressed” about grades and test scores. It is quite another for students, parents, and educators in our profoundly mediocre education system to be stressed about these things. Americans ought to be stressed about them instead of plotting a backlash against measuring teaching and learning.


I’m sure you had a pleasant trip. From my perspective, your reporting would have been more meaningful, if you could have had the insights of experienced educators. However a few things become clear — that Singapore and other Asian schools are moving in the direction of collaboration and creativity is not news. It is ironic, because you could have mentioned that US educators for years have incorporated different approaches to in class group work and out of class group projects. US educators could be teaching these skills to Singaporean teachers.

And, of course, you could have noted the irony of push in the US by the DoE and Bill Gates’ multi-billion dollar advocacy efforts to over test our kids. Elementary students in Chicago take 24 different tests each school year. (Saah Karp, Catalyst) It is pushed by Silicon Valley bc the tests will all be computerized, and districts are loading up on Apple iPads (L.A. spent $1 billion), Google Chrome books, and Murdoch’s Amplify tablets.

Do any of the Asian school districts have ultra-expensive one-to-one laptop initiatives?
Do Asian teachers get a pension?

Be nice to know some details. Thanks

Barnett Berry

At least 4 things to add about the Singapore, Sarah.

1. Class (and school) size is quite small for their highest need students. See my blog from my recent work there: http://www.teachingquality.org/content/investing-children-and-teachers-singapores-crest-secondary-school

2. Most all of the ideas from their NIE on how to prepare their teachers come from our university-based teacher ed programs.

3. They have a teacher evaluation system that focuses on the spread of teaching expertise and led by administrators and master teachers alike.

4. Teachers only teach 12-18 hours a week so they have more time to lead.

There is a lot to learn from Singapore and can be translated here.

CTQ and it global team of teacher leaders – including those from Singapore – will be releasing a report soon on professional learning systems.

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