What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

Sunday, 15 January 2017

What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

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.

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.

 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.

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.

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Source: The Rivard Report, © Copyright 2017, The Rivard Report