In the first PISA exams designed to measure problem-solving, Singapore’s 562 score topped 44 countries and economies in an area that Western countries used to claim as their last domain of preeminence. After returning from Singapore to keynote the Educational Leadership Summit along with Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Louise Stoll for some 1300 delegates from throughout Asia, I have some insights as to how this country of only 5.5 million people has outflanked 44 nations, including the richest one on earth: the USA. Some of the critical factors in Singapore’s success can’t be reproduced in the west; some can; and others can be improved upon.
Culture is King
A school’s culture will eat policies, structures, strategies, and assessments for lunch – and that includes Common Core assessments. The culture is the most powerful and enduring aspect of a learning community and the greatest determinant of the success of the students in that community. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, continues an attempt to change practice through competition that creates a few winners and millions of losers (our children). Marc Tucker, President of the National Center for Education and the Economy meanwhile correctly advocate changes in policy and structure – especially pertaining to supporting teachers in ways that stick instead of with sticks (paraphrasing Fullan). Yet these two opposing viewpoints have something in common with most analysis: they overlook the extent to which both the school culture and the larger culture in which it resides is the greatest lever for sustained success.
Tapping the strength of the Singaporean Culture
Imagine arriving late in a city of the western nation of your choice, claiming your baggage, and awaiting a cab that will take you to your hotel via a route unknown to you. What questions or concerns arise in this scenario? Will my bags arrive? How long will customs take? Will the driver understand me? Will I be taken the “tourist route?”
Now imagine your bags arrive almost as you approach the carousel, you go through customs in a matter of minutes, hop into a taxi driven by a Malaysian man who has undertaken 30 days of intensive cab-driver training following his 2 years in college. He easily maneuvers the crime-free streets of a city with no unemployment and a code of ethics and honesty that will allow you to safely put your GPS away while in the back of that taxi. You are in Singapore!
The driver is a “professional” who knows his way. The country has agreed upon ethics and strict enforcement of them such that neither your safety nor that of your wallet is at risk. And everyone is in concert on the top priorities of this country which include their children, and the education that will enhance not only their livelihoods, but their lives.
What are the cultural ingredients that have enabled Singapore to outpace all other nations in education? Can countries like the USA, with one of the highest per pupil educational expenditures in the world, adopt any of these practices given our differing cultures? What advantages, if any, does the US have vis a vis top performing nations, and how could those be maximized?
The Ingredients for Success
“We want our young to think independently, to explore with confidence, and to pursue their passions. Education is not just about training for jobs. It is about opening doors for our children, and giving them hope and opportunities. They are our future.” – Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, Nov 2007
1. Integrity of leadership
As the quote above indicates, leadership in Singapore is committed to its children and its people. There is alignment of purpose and action as well, and corruption is not tolerated. Punishments are swift and severe and their likelihood is mitigated in practical ways like paying top government officials upwards of $1M. By contrast, in America the assumption is that millionaires will leave their jobs to take one with the government that pays a fraction of what they formerly earned without a payout awaiting them on the back end, or worse, while still in office.
Likewise, while their overall budget is a fraction of that of many Western nations, Singapore’s top spending priority is education after the military. Educators are well-paid professionals who do not determine the curriculum but do define how they will meet standards, which are clear.
While moving toward Common Core Standards in America after more than a century of uncommon standards, we still have 23 states using Smarter Balanced Assessment, 14 using PARCC, and 14 “other.” Neither our national leaders (where congress rates lower in opinion polls than does the Russian Politburo) nor our state leaders (where several are under investigation, and one just narrowly avoided impeachment) have the public confidence necessary to bring about cohesive action on behalf of our children.
2. Integrity of Implementation
While Singapore has different types of schools, and conceivably a different quality of pedagogy, the attempt is to bring about consistency across curriculum, standards, instruction, and success for students in all schools. Not so in America. The April 23 issue of Education Week sums it up: “Like so much else in the world of teacher preparation, progress at readying new teachers for vastly different (Common Core) K-12 content expectations can probably best be described by one objective: inconsistent.”
This inconsistency is found in all phases of our “system.” From teacher preparation in which “academic freedom” means learning based on individual professors’ predilections; to technology selection and professional development which is influenced less by student needs than by corporations’ marketing plans; to a patchwork of public, private and charter schools—each school community is more or less on its own to make myriad decisions and spending choices of $600B collectively.
3. Practical Tradeoffs Favor the Common Good v. “Winner Take All”
At the core of Singapore’s success is their hard-headed willingness to sacrifice some of their individual excesses in favor of their vision of collective success. The cab driver above shared that although he is not making as much money as he would like, and has little prospect at this point in changing that, he would not want to live anywhere else. Why? “It’s safe here, and my children are getting a great education.” People at the bottom of the economic latter in America could not say this. They don’t have healthcare, safety, or access to great education for their children. Singapore made a collective decision to turn away from these vast disparities they faced shortly after they were founded 50 years ago. Those at the top committed to the common good, and have since reaped the rewards. They don’t live in gated communities for protection, because like this cab driver, no one is hungry or desperate.
A Ray of HOPE for America
It’s highly unlikely that we will wake up any day soon and find cohesive leadership at the national level, cohesive implementation of our nation’s top education priorities, or a new understanding of how everyone winning (or at least having a viable stake in the game) is actually possible and far more productive and sustainable than the zero sum game we now hold so tightly (a topic my colleague Pedro Noguera and I address in a forthcoming Corwin book). Future blog posts, however, will explore in greater depth these promising and proven strategies that we can pursue at local and regional levels. These are cutting-edge ways we can make our often destructive desire for rugged individualism and “choice” (even when it’s between many bad options) work in our favor:
• At a system level, we can begin to tap our collective creativity in ways akin to open-source programming. I-Zone in NYC, for example, is bringing brilliant entrepreneurs into the school system to work side-by-side with educators, parents, and students to collectively create tech solutions to problems defined by educators. Everyone co-creates and owns the final product, wants to implement it, and does so at a reduced cost.
• At the regional and district level, we can tap the “Answer in the Room,” to steal the title from my last book, via a process for networking schools in a manner that yields the scaling, or diffusion, of effective strategies that are already successfully used somewhere within the network.
• At the school and classroom levels, we can fully engage all learners and attain excellence through “equity” – assuring each student gets what s/he needs to succeed. For some students, this means putting the Arts into STEM (ie STEAM); for others it’s project based learning. These strategies for unleashing student motivation, talent, and joy will be fleshed out in future blogs.
There is hope; even in the most dire of circumstances. Mine is that we don’t have to get to that point. Our children need and deserve better, and it is up to us to give them that. Singapore provides some insights into how we can behave on their behalf. Now it’s up to us to incorporate those lessons into our own culture and context.