Executive Perspective

A Worthy Import From Singapore

by Paul D. Houston

The critics of American public schools love to compare us to other countries and then wonder why America can’t do as well as say (pick one) Russia, Japan, Germany or even little Singapore. They like to point out how much more money America spends on education and then decry our poor international standings. The latest, greatest comparisons have been with Singapore, which annually kicks our tail in international comparisons on math and science.

Now I must admit I haven’t lost a lot of sleep over that. Singapore is, you see, a city state of several million people who are largely middle-class. Their service economy workforce comes across the border from Malaysia in the morning and goes home at night. Singapore doesn’t have to worry about leaving those poor children behind.

The country is democratic but very authoritarian in its culture. The fact that it is not as large as one of our major cities and is lacking our cultural diversity makes it a poor choice for making me feel guilty. Go find a country with our complexity and diversity that does better than we do and then I’ll sit up and take notice.

However, that does not mean we can’t learn from others—even those different from us. So I was excited last fall to get to visit Singapore and see firsthand the educational miracle others had described. And what I saw was impressive.

Depth of Understanding
Undoubtedly their math and science instruction outshines ours. They put much more time and energy into it. In fact, there are other weaknesses in their system that might well stem from an overemphasis on those two areas. When you spend more time doing one thing, it means there is less time for something else.

Within the math and science area they do not try to cover the wide range of territory found in the American curriculum. They believe learning to do a few problems well and really understanding why you got the answers you did is much more important than doing a lot of problems without that understanding. I liked that emphasis on depth. They also spend a lot of time trying to think about the thinking they are doing—meta cognition the psychologists call it. That was impressive.

But it was what I discovered about Singapore that our critics never share that impressed me most of all. First there was a recognition that the family is critical to having a good student and the schools depend on family support—psychic and monetary. Students are well-behaved and motivated because home and school work as a team.

Singapore itself is a very successful country. It is an economic power in a region of poverty. It is a center of enlightenment in a region of darkness. As one of our guides said, “We are a good boy in a neighborhood of bad boys.”

Because it is rich and small, Singapore must guard against invasion by its neighbors who might envy its success. So it has a strong military. Yet the only thing in the Singaporean budget that had never been cut is not the military—it is education. Regardless of the strength or weakness of its economy, Singapore has increased its spending for schools every year of its history. Education is the No. 1 priority of the country in deed, not just in word.

Deep Respect
The other thing that sets Singapore apart is its treatment of teachers. In Singapore if you want to be a teacher first you must get a regular college degree with a major in something. Can’t you just feel the fluttering in the hearts of all those who believe that American teachers are bumbling numbskulls? Finally, someone gets it. Just get good people who know their subject and throw them in the classroom!

Not so fast there, Skippy. For after four years of college, if someone wants to teach, they spend a year at the National Institute of Education getting their pedagogical skills honed. For in Singapore they have figured out that you need both core knowledge and teaching knowledge to be effective.

But that is not the end of it. That fifth year is paid for by the government. You see, the government in Singapore has the weird idea that it must invest in developing good teachers. It doesn’t mandate highly qualified teachers—it creates them. But wait, it gets better. These folks are paid as first-year teachers during their year of training. The government recognizes that people going to school have to eat, have a place to sleep and maintain some self-respect so it begins treating them like teachers during that year.

But this is the best part: First-year teachers in Singapore get paid more than lawyers, engineers or doctors. We asked about that and the answer was, “why without teachers, you would not have lawyers or engineers or doctors. Everything starts with a teacher.” Indeed it does. Now that is one lesson from Singapore worth stealing.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.
E-mail: phouston@aasa.org