Why cant we be more like Singapore | Teachers College Columbia University

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Why cant we be more like Singapore

A delegation from the tiny city state discusses its educational success
Year after year, test after test, Singapore’s students consistently emerge at or near the head of the pack on international assessments, leaving many other countries—including the United States—to wonder:  What’s the secret?

Part of the answer is size. Singapore, an island ‘microstate’ created in 1965 after lengthy British rule, spans a geographic area smaller than the five boroughs of New York City. With about five million residents, and fewer than half a million students, the tiny city-state is able to enforce national education policies—including the preparation of all teachers by a single facility, the National Institute of Education (NIE), which works in partnership with the country’s Ministry of Education. 
 “Because we are a small and compressed system, our beliefs focus on alignment,” said NIE Director Lee Sing Kong, who, with his NIE colleagues Christine Kim-Eng Lee (a TC alumna), Christine Goh, and Ee-Ling Low, spoke on campus in late October, hosted by the College’s Office of International Affairs following an invitation by TC President Susan Fuhrman. “We have a very close working relationship, in terms of alignment, between the Ministry of Education, the NIE and the schools.”
That’s in stark contrast to the United States, where since the founding of the Republic, the motto of states on education matters has essentially been “Vive la difference!”
Clearly, Singapore’s way has many advantages. Teachers there are revered professionals and make good money, too, said Low, who counts a doctorate in phonetics from Cambridge among her education credentials. “Upon graduation, teachers are paid the salaries of beginning doctors and lawyers,” she said, to sighs from many of the pre-service teaching students in attendance.
The teaching profession in Singapore also draws exclusively from the nation’s very best students, Low said. Only the top 30 percent of high-school graduates are considered eligible for pre-service preparation. Of those, only about half eventually qualify for teaching jobs.
Teachers in Singapore also receive government funding for pursuing advanced degrees, whether inside the country or abroad. Lee, Head of Curriculum and Teaching at the NIE, is one beneficiary of this system: She met her husband in New York City in the 1980s, when they were both students at TC. They returned together a few years later with their year-old child in tow, when Lee received scholarship support to earn an Ed.D.
So Singapore’s teachers are smart, well-prepared and motivated—but they’re also, Lee Sing Kong said, the key agents of “a culture that treasures education,” lionized by a government that “publicizes teachers’ contribution to nation-building.” Teachers are taught to empathize with their students and believe that all children can learn; to view service, both to the community and the profession, as elemental to their own professional identity and personal pride; and to achieve literacy in English, the nation’s official language of instruction, as well as in technology and multimedia applications.
“Can you imagine how different it would be, if every prospective teacher must come from the top third?” asked TC Professor A. Lin Goodwin, after the presentation. “If they’d receive a salary during their preparation plus have their education paid for?” Similarly, she asked, what would it be like in the United States “if teachers were fully paid, every year, during school time” for professional development, as they are in Singapore, and had well-developed, long-term career paths to pursue, in teaching, leadership, and research—all part of the NIE’s 21st century goals?
“Yes, it takes money,” Goodwin said. “More importantly, it takes a national commitment.”
The essence of that commitment, Goh, said, is Singapore’s “philosophy of lifelong learning.” The nation is poor in natural resources, so “human resource is our only resource; learning is valuable.”  

Published Monday, Jan. 11, 2010