Learning from the Best: Singapore and Education Reform

By Matthew Boey

As a leader in the global economy, the United States has consistently produced a creative, entrepreneurial workforce to rival many other major economies. However, there are signs that this competitive edge is beginning to slip. Despite its wealth and global standing, American students have had consistently subpar performances on international exams; in 2016, the OECD found that American high school graduation rates are among the lowest of industrialized nations. Many executives and employers have cited a lack of qualified candidates as one of their most common barriers to filling open positions. While the U.S. has pursued a myriad of strategies to improve student performance, it could take some cues from its Asian counterpart and current leader in primary and secondary education: Singapore.

With a landmass the size of Chicago but with three times its population, Singapore’s rise

Singapore School testing
Image Source: Business Insider Singapore

as an economic and educational powerhouse is considered one of the greatest success stories in Southeast Asia. When the former British colony gained full independence from Malaysia in 1965, its prospects appeared meager at best. The island’s lack of natural resources and tensions with its neighbors created barriers to restructuring its colonial economy, which was heavily dependent on entrepot trade. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, saw a catch-all solution through investing in what he saw as the country’s only resource: its rapidly growing population. Consequently, Singapore has invested heavily in education and has continually retooled its system to fit shifting economic needs, with great success.

There are several lessons the U.S. could take from Singapore’s systems, the first being equitable funding methods. The U.S. spends more on education than most developed countries, ranking third in spending per student according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Roughly 90 percent of these funds are raised through a combination of state funding and local property taxes. However, this system has produced large budget disparities between districts. Unable to raise capital through local taxes, more impoverished neighborhoods are forced to rely on state funds, unsteady sources that tend to drop during economic downturns. While legislation and court decisions have tried to mend the gap between poorer and more well-off districts, it has done little to create an equitable environment. For example, it is more difficult and costly for schools with many disadvantaged students to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. Additionally, these schools have populations that have higher rates of disabilities or social services, which require additional resources to address. 

The Singaporean government has sought to address inequities through a more holistic system that extends outside of the school. Foundationally, the Ministry of Education (MOE) allocates finances based on the number of pupils in a school. Superintendents are charged with sharing resources between schools in their jurisdiction and ensuring that all staff and students have access to materials and resources of the top-performing schools. But in addition to this structure, the MOE has sought to assist families directly through its Edusave program. Upon entering primary schools, Singaporean students are automatically given an Edusave account and receive a yearly grant of $200 until they turn 16. This money can only be used for education-related expenses, and usually, are put towards extra materials or tutoring. Additionally, the MOE offers broad financial assistance to those attendings schools that accept government funds. This assistance can cover a variety of expenses, including school fees, textbooks, uniforms, transport, and meals.

Second, the U.S. needs to adopt a more stringent system for teacher recruitment and training. Currently, the U.S. has a much less rigorous selection process for admission into teacher preparation programs than most other high performing countries. In 2013, the average minimum GPA requirement for these programs was 2.6, while the average of students who were actually admitted was recorded at 3.24. Other evidence suggests that lower-performing education programs produce more than 60 percent of the nation’s middle school math teachers. Of these graduates, underperforming teachers were more likely to be placed in schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty. Conversely, the most prepared educators were more likely to work in wealthier districts. In addition to their placements, many educators face financial issues that discourage recruitment and hinder day to day activities. On top of high student debt, lower budgets and declining salaries, many teachers are forced to spend their own money on supplies, further limiting resources available to themselves and students. 

In comparison, Singapore boasts a more robust and comprehensive program for selecting and preparing prospective teachers. Candidates are chosen from the top one-third of graduating secondary schools (ages 12 to 17) and are well-financed during their training. The MOE automatically awards generous tuition grants to citizens, which typically cover 50 to 80 percent of course fees. Furthermore, teachers-in-training receive a stipend equivalent to 60 percent of a teacher’s salary, in exchange for teaching in Singapore for at least three years. 

In addition to this financial aid, the Singaporean system offers greater opportunities for advancement and collaboration. Upon entering a school, new instructors are assigned to “master teachers,” who are responsible for helping other teachers in the school improve. After three years of teaching, teachers are assessed annually to see if they have the potential for three different career paths: a teaching track (aforementioned master teachers), school leadership track (principals, superintendents, and department heads) and senior specialist tracks (research and curriculum development). 

Lastly, the United States needs to rethink not just the implementation of accountability and assessment measures, but how they are used to address student needs. Since the turn of the millennium, the systems implemented to track educational progress have been heavily reliant on standardized test scores. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was criticized by parents and educators for inundating students with constant assessments and setting arbitrary or unachievable standards for teachers. Attempts to rectify this manifested in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which allowed for states to set their own standards, with approval by the Department of Education. Furthermore, it mandated that students be tested annually from third through eighth grade and then once more in high school, with states are given wide reign to decide how to address (or purposefully ignore) low-performing schools. 

While the Singaporean system relies on testing to evaluate performance, it assesses students less often than the U.S. and uses the results to direct students into a school that best fits them. Known as “streaming,” this system consists of four main exams, most notably the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Taken by students near the end of their sixth year in primary school, the PSLE is used to place students in secondary schools that match their learning pace, abilities, and interests. These placements allow students to focus on subjects in which they excel while accommodating for differences in student learning and progress.

There are several caveats for the successes in Singapore and the feasibility of changes in the U.S. Most notably, the heavily centralized authority of the Ministry of Education and Singapore’s relatively small population is not only easier to administer, but also more malleable for rapid changes. In the U.S., the large variance in systems between states and historical wariness of government intervention has created a delicate balance of accounting for individual needs while promoting systemic changes. Furthermore, the Singapore system has been criticized for cultivating an unhealthy obsession with test scores that has severely impacted the mental health of many students and neglected personal development. While the government has taken steps to address both these concerns, some in the U.S are skeptical of straining a system that has already struggled to implement effective support services. However, to remain competitive in the midst of rapid technological change and international integration, the United States must develop an educational system to match its global standing.

Featured Image Source: Townsville Primary School, https://townsvillepri.moe.edu.sg/

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