What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

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Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Leading architects were hired to attract and inspire students and teachers alike to Singapore's technical education institutes, the equivalent of U.,S. community colleges.

SINGAPORE – A caravan of Texas public educators and business leaders recently traveled to this island city-state of 5.7 million people in Southeast Asia to learn more about one of the world’s most successful public school systems.

Singapore is a good distance to travel in search of ways to improve Texas’ low-performing public schools, but rankings of the world’s best school systems always place Singapore atop a handful of other Asian and European nations.

The United States usually manages a spot in the Top 20, but seldom higher, a reflection of relatively low high school graduation rates and underinvestment in early education programs. Among the 50 states, Texas fares poorly: The Lone Star State ranks 48th in per capita student spending, 43rd in SAT scores, and 33rd in overall education outcomes.

Singapore finished first among all nations in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, an annual test conducted by the 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that measures comprehension levels for math, science, and reading among 15-year-old students.

Singapore as a destination for the Texas educators was no accident. The nation shook off British colonial rule in 1965 and at the same time embarked on what has proven to be a carefully phased, 50-year long transformation of its public school system. The newly independent nation under its longtime leader and prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew (see Part II in this series) understood that human capital would have to propel Singapore forward.

Message banners are commonplace at Singapore schools, spelling out national values and aspirations.

Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Message banners are commonplace at Singapore schools, spelling out national values and aspirations.

Long-term strategic education and economic development initiatives developed in the 1970s and 80s took direct aim at the country’s high number of sixth grade dropouts and an economy held back by low wage, unskilled workers. In place of the old, Singaporean leaders built a world-class system of public education that churned out skilled workers who have helped build and sustain a globally competitive economy in a nation with no natural resources other than its location along well-traveled shipping lanes.

Singaporeans now enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes among all nations, $52,888 in the 2015 World Bank rankings, compared to $56,115 in the United States.

For the 37 Texas educators and community leaders, the trip was an opportunity to study one nation’s great march from Third World to First World status, and to gather ideas and practices that could be exported back home. The state’s size, location, and thriving urban centers give it an economy bigger than many nations’, so the resources should be there to redesign a 21st century public education system.

Students from ethnically-diverse Singapore enjoy comfortable campus amenities that extend learning beyond the classroom.

Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Students from ethnically diverse Singapore enjoy comfortable campus amenities that extend learning beyond the classroom.

San Antonio was represented by Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president of IBC Bank and a tri-chair of the 2017 Bond; David Crouch, vice president of manufacturing for Toyota; Margo DelliCarpini, the newly-appointed dean of the College of Education at The University of Texas at San Antonio; Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, former CEO of The DoSeum and a former Teach for America executive; and Kate Rogers, a vice president at H-E-B and acting executive vice president of the Holdsworth Center.

The Texas delegation met with Ministry of Education officials, who oversee public and higher education, and leaders at the National Institute for Education, the nation’s teacher preparation and professional development organization. Site visits to city schools, colleges, and programs across the country filled out the intense five-day visit.

Public art and green spaces are part of every development project in Singapore.

Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Public art and green spaces are part of every development project in Singapore.

Yet, even as the 85th session of the Texas Legislature opened in Austin on Tuesday, there is nothing on the agenda to suggest that fundamental change is on the horizon, or that elected officials will respond to a call made by Texas Supreme Court justices in May to address the state’s broken public school funding system. What Texas lacks at this juncture is the political will and nonpartisan unity necessary to enact real change.

The Texas Supreme Court justices, while declining to affirm a lower court’s ruling that the state’s funding system is unconstitutional, roundly criticized Texas public education and called on legislators to address the matter once and for all. Click here to read the 100-page Supreme Court ruling.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Republican majorities in the Senate and House are not focused on the state of public education in Texas. Speaker of the House Joe Straus is the only one of the “Big Three” who has spoken publicly in the wake of the high court’s ruling about the need to do more. That leaves educators like those who traveled to Singapore to act independently in seeking ways to innovate. New funding or unified political support in Austin at this juncture are not realistic.

What makes Singapore’s public school system so special? Many things.

Singapore, a one-party democracy, closely aligns education strategies with economic growth trends, so the country’s political and education leaders share a common vision and goals. Once education policy is set, politicians stand back and let educators educate.

There is  a particular focus on STEM learning. Singapore has a rigorous system for selecting and training teachers and principals, as well as a meritocracy where educators are compensated more competitively than their Texas peers. Students are evaluated and “streamed” at the end of 10th grade, an approach that has been central to all but eliminating dropouts.  The country fosters a strong culture among its ethnically and religiously diverse population with a “Singapore First” sense of pride in educational attainment for every individual. From the very start, the focus lies on character development and values alongside content learning.

For Texas, with its own singular identity and and world-class aspirations, a shift in mindset among lawmakers, top elected officials, and the Texas Department of Education could theoretically lead to the same kind of new strategic direction. There is nothing to suggest that will happen soon, but the many different organizations working in the state to improve education could find enough common ground to gain the attention of political leaders and, over time, win support for elevating Texas from its current low standing to the top of national rankings.

For Texas educators and others interested in taking a more definitive look at Singapore’s education system, the prestigious Harvard Education Press last year published Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Fernando M. Reimers and Connie K. Chung. The book examines education in six nations, including Singapore and the United States. The chapter on Singapore was authored by two distinguished professors Oon-Seng Tan and Ec-Ling Low. Both hold senior positions with the country’s National Institute of Education.

Open campus spaces are common in the country's well-designed technical institutes, or community colleges.

Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Open campus spaces are common in the country’s well-designed technical institutes, or community colleges.

Educate Texas Leads the Way

Austin-based Educate Texas helped organize and lead the learning mission to Singapore in partnership with Kate Rogers of H-E-B and the newly formed Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership. Educate Texas is a public-private partnership whose goal is “strengthening the public education system so that every Texas student is prepared for success in school, in the workforce, and in life.”

“We were fortunate to assemble a stellar group of Texas leaders who were able to learn about the drivers and environment that have led to Singapore’s impressive academic gains over the past 50 years,” said George Tang, managing director of Educate Texas. “Through conversations and visits with leaders throughout Singapore’s educational system, we were impressed by the strategic and purposeful design of their systems to support the country’s economic growth.”

The organization counts as its partners some of the nation’s most important foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, but it also partners with the Office of the Governor, the Texas Legislature, and the Texas Education Agency, the very entities that would have to support any major changes in Texas public school funding and oversight.

San Antonio delegates: IBC's Eddie Aldrete; Robert Rivard; H-E-B's Kate Rogers, Toyota's David Crouch; UTSA's Margo DelliCarpini; and former DoSeum's Vanessa Lacoss Hurd.

Juliana Tan/Singapore

San Antonio delegates: IBC’s Eddie Aldrete, Robert Rivard, H-E-B’s Kate Rogers, Toyota’s David Crouch, UTSA’s Margo DelliCarpini, and former DoSeum’s Vanessa Lacoss Hurd.

The Educate Texas group’s expenses were underwritten with funds provided by Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of H-E-B, the state’s biggest individual advocate and corporate supporter of public education.

“Visiting Singapore with the Educate Texas delegation opened my eyes to an educational approach that taps into each student’s unique gifts,” said Ed Escudero, president & CEO of High Desert Capital. “But the most memorable interactions, in my opinion, were the conversations and idea exchanges that sprang organically after each presentation.  Having the time and opportunity for deeper discussions about our individual educational challenges and opportunities provided the greatest enrichment.”

Inspirational business names on campus cafes and gathering spots are additional expressions of Singaporean values.

Robert Rivard/Rivard Report

Inspirational business names on campus cafes and gathering spots are additional expressions of Singaporean values.

Journalists representing the Texas Tribune, Rivard Report, Dallas Morning News, and Houston Chronicle accompanied the delegation and participated in all of the meetings with Singapore’s education leaders. Eva-Marie Ayala, an education reporter for the Dallas Morning News, published this story in early December: What can this tiny island show Texas about finding great teachers? A lot, actually.

October’s education mission was my first trip back to Singapore after nearly 30 years – I had traveled there twice as the chief of correspondents for Newsweek magazine in the 1980s. What I found in 2016 no longer resembles the post-colonial Singapore. Hundreds of office and residential towers have been constructed, yet Singapore boasts one of the greenest urban landscapes of any major Asian city. A final story in this series will focus on this world-class city.

Sunday: What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

Coming Monday: Singapore: Lew Kuan Yew’s Vision Realized

Coming Tuesday: Singapore: A Meritocracy of Teachers & Principals

Coming Wednesday: Singapore: Where the Future is Now

7 thoughts on “What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

  1. First, we have to adopt the simplest algebra methods that so easy that even preschool kids are willing to learn it from us again and again.
    Our algebra is ineffective in many subjects areas. Many of methods very hard to learn or incomplete as a methods, therefore we needed many more methods to make up for it short fall.
    As result few students from high schools can handle random algebraic equations. How about algebra teachers, how many teachers have enough confidence to say I can solve random algebraic equations ? Our kids learn most of what our algebra teach them.

  2. One often sees these desirable social results taking place in many small population, rich countries like Norway, Sweden or Singapore. Unfortunately in that we are 100 times larger than many of these environments the bureaucratic layer and loaded cost of government tends to really distanced the citizens from the bureaucrats overspending and services not reaching the “customer”.

    A great distinguishment about Singapore is they don’t put up with miss behavior and nonsense.

    Lack of discipline and even violence in our classroom severely hampers teachers ability to teach in it robs students from the rigors of high paced education.

    Is legitimately pointed out in the article Singapore has an emphasis in STEM studies.

    We’re being far too easy on our kids and allowing them to study the fun things that really don’t lead to viable careers.

    Kudos on this insight. I hope our educators will do the hard things needed to follow through on these improvements.

  3. ng far too easy on our kids and allowing them to study the fun things that really don’t lead to viable careers.”

    As a former university science instructor, a scientist and someone enmeshed in improving our public education system, with two children in elementary now, I could not disagree more.

    Our current STEM education has long been focused on rote-memorization and testing. When these kids get to college, they don’t know how to ask questions, they don’t know how to think and they don’t know how to explain their ideas and findings in writing.

    All educational topics are interwoven. One can not have one without the other. An ability to communicate in writing, a skill perfected through many years of language arts and social sciences classes, is critical to their success as scientists. The ability to think creatively, to think outside the box and explore new ideas, learned through the exploration of art, is essential to being a scientist. The patterns learned in music classes enhance one’s success in maths. I’ve already seen it in my kids – both fascinated by science and asking and exploring scientific questions on a daily basis – their arts education to date has only served to make their science better.

    As an epidemiologist, my own understanding of the geopolitical systems across various countries in which I’ve worked, has been critical. The social sciences classes I had in college teaching me about human dynamics and various cultures was essential to my daily work in infectious diseases.

    That said, STEM is not the be all and end all. We need people who can write novels. We need people who can create art. We need people who understand the social sciences. We need social workers. No field of study is useless, unless the teacher is not good and the student chooses to ignore what they’ve learned.

    Furthermore, having spent a significant amount of time working with scientists from many countries (and being married to one), I am very familiar with the “streaming” method of education. It has its pros: students are more advanced in their one particular area. It has its cons: they have limited knowledge outside their field and, importantly, if you did not hit the right exams when you were 12 or 13, you are tracked into vocational studies and it’s hard to move out.

    Finally, if our aim is to create worker bees, jobs training as you suggest is the way to go. Our education system in K-12 is not aimed at creating working bees, but to give individuals the foundations to explore their many options. I do strongly believe we need alternatives to college – which the community colleges provide with excellent jobs training programs. But copying a system like Singapore’s would be a huge disservice to our students.

    • For the record, nothing in what I have written suggests that we copy Singapore. It is surprising how the story has generated so much “we can’t do that here,” when the broader point what to use a successful model in place elsewhere to energize people to doing something different than what we are doing now. –RR

      • Bob, I meant to reply directly to the post above (the system kept booting me out), where he said “We’re being far too easy on our kids and allowing them to study the fun things that really don’t lead to viable careers.” My response was directly aimed at that comment.

        I applaud this group’s efforts and I know they had been looking to other countries’ systems for guidance. I am indeed surprised, though, that Singapore would be held up as a “successful model.” My experience with the system there is less direct (though I have some experience with a very similar system in another Asian country, albeit one with a much more democratic government), but I know enough of it to know I wouldn’t send my kids to a local school if I lived in Singapore.

  4. One final point – the most successful scientists I know, and I have worked with a Nobel prize winner and met many brilliant scientists – are also artists, musicians, writers.

    In 1st grade, my kid came home after school discussing the physics of color, which she learned in art class. Wasting time? Harding. It helped her to grasp the concept of physics – like, what makes the sky blue?

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