Singapore’s Education – An Insider’s Look

Note: This was originally written to be presented at a Unified Educators of San Francisco (UESF)  assembly meeting. It is taken from my personal experience of having taught in Singapore, and only reflects my personal thoughts.

Singapore’s education has been hailed internationally as one of the world’s best education systems, in large part due to its high PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores. Singapore has been successful, especially with Mathematics and Science, although there are other achievements that have been overlooked, such as great work in providing equality of opportunity. However, as with all systems, Singapore still has many challenges such as moving away from intensive testing and working out racial and class issues. In this article, I will investigate these issues and look at what can be learned and how that can be applied to the United States.

I was personally lucky enough see the inner workings of Singapore’s schools by working for 15 months in an all-boys government secondary school (equivalent of grades 7-10). I participated as an International Teaching Associate, an untrained teacher that did not displace any other teachers, but taught and co-taught English, History, Music, and Mathematics.

The Singaporean Ethos – ‘Meritocracy’ and the ‘Equality of Opportunity’

Underpinning much of Singapore’s society is a very strong belief in meritocracy (the idea that people get into position of power on the basis of their ability) and the equality of opportunity (the idea that everyone should get an equal opportunity in life, even if it doesn’t result in the same outcomes). The education system, of course, plays a crucially important role in this. It serves the purpose of giving students an equal opportunity to succeed while also eventually sorting them out on the basis of merit and ability. Singapore achieves these goals somewhat effectively, but not perfectly.

In many senses, Singapore does as good a job as any country providing for an equal early age education. More than 75% of Singaporeans live in public housing that follows strict racial quotas, and, in addition, all Singaporeans are required to attend public schools for primary school, unless they have a certified disability. As a result, there is a general level of mixture with, and equality between, all of the primary schools that promotes Singapore’s ideal of equality of opportunity.

As part of its goal to create a meritocratic society, Singapore follows a very strict system of exams and tracking that starts from an early age. Even by the end of the equivalent of 3rd grade, primary schools start tracking their students internally in order to best teach to their ability. By the end of 6th grade, students take an exam that determines the type and ranking of their secondary school and life trajectory more generally. This determination can still be altered, but only in rare cases. By the end of 10th grade, the students have a another exam (which can differ based on their previous track) which determines whether the students can continue on an academic path.

I saw education planned backwards from the tests. As an English teacher, I was absolutely shocked to discover that the “syllabus” I received from the school was just a practice examination. Then, in conjunction with other teachers, I was expected to schedule the semester to directly cover each of the different types of test questions. Although this test-based learning was not as egregious for the Mathematics I taught (since the  inherent goal is to be able to solve the problems that are on the exam), it made very little sense for the humanities. I felt it was very hard to make history enjoyable, applicable, and memorable when I had to cover how to answer the exam questions instead of the content itself.

Of course, not all students have an equal chance to prove their abilities. In Singapore, pre-primary school education is not provided for free, so poorer students (more likely to be of Malay descent) show up on the first day of school already behind their wealthier peers (more likely to be of Chinese descent). Beyond that, the primary schools are not perfectly equal since children of alumni receive preference, and hence some schools have a much higher concentration of wealth than others. Furthermore, there is a huge tuition (tutoring) business in Singapore, mainly for primary school; this means the wealthier students have another advantage on the exams. By the time students enter secondary school, they have been sorted in a way that often reflects socio-economic status and race. At the same time, such streaming has been legitimized by the idea the students on top are there solely because of merit, leaving some students behind and discouraged. The school I taught at was a working class school that did not have the top test scorers, and it did noticeably depress some students. Once I was asked by a student why I was there, as he seemed to assume a teacher of European descent to be a ‘prized’ teacher who would be teaching at a ‘better’ school.

However, I do want to point out that Singapore has been working hard to perfect alternatives to universities. The government has somewhat controversially kept a strict quota on local university spots for Singaporeans (meaning some students from wealthier families who struggle can just send their kids abroad for a university education), but the government has been focused on bringing up the level and prestige of their polytechnics, technical training schools. Indeed, some students are even beginning to choose polytechnics over a conventional university path if they already know what they want to do.

Education: A Cornerstone of a Business-Focused Government

The city-state of Singapore runs itself very much like a business, and that has many implications for education. Singapore realizes the importance of a well-educated citizenry in order to attract foreign investment and grow economically. As such, education is the second largest part of Singapore’s budget behind the military. Singapore grasps that it competes against companies and other opportunities for the best employees, and realizes the importance of paying government employees well, including teachers. Even though the high payment of government officials has been a cause for public resentment with the the highest paid Prime Minister in the world and the government ministers regularly make over $1 Million a year, teacher’s salaries have not been targeted.  Although teaching is not the most respected profession, overall, teachers are much more respected than in the US and are paid accordingly.

Although Singapore does have a teachers’ union, it has very little importance or power. Without collective bargaining rights or the ability to strike, it functions as a professional organization with workshops. Consequently, teachers are easily overworked in Singapore, and are even officially on duty throughout vacations (even if the school does not specifically require their presence). Many teachers do complain about this, but on the whole, are resigned to it as they realize the importance of working with the kids and also expect the school system to be run in a businesslike fashion.

Thinking economically, the Singapore Ministry of Education has set up a high-stakes evaluation system that enables teachers to earn sizeable bonuses up to a quarter of their annual salary. There is a comprehensive system that includes classroom assessments, test scores, and even time put into extracurricular activities. While not all teachers change what they do to earn the bonuses, there are some who really focus on the evaluations for the bonus and also for future promotions as teachers or into the Ministry of Education itself. I noticed that emphasis on the evaluation system means priorities can be a bit skewed; for example eschewing classroom prep time in order to spend the time planning other random extra curricular events for the kids that can be added to the evaluation.

Final Thoughts

The adulation of Singapore’s Math and Science curriculum does a bit of a disservice. Indeed, we can review how they teach Math and Science, but by focusing solely on that, we miss many other learning opportunities. Singapore does have other strengths: although Singapore still struggles with racial and class issues, it has worked hard to equalize the primary schools. Furthermore, Singapore has placed public education and teachers into a critically important position in society. Singapore provides a great look at some of the unintended consequences of many policies that reformers advocate. It is important to evaluate teachers and pay them well, but how do we make sure the evaluations are effective and measure all possible avenues of success? Student assessment may be useful, but is a system of test-based learning optimal?

Although the US education system has many problems, Singapore is not a panacea. When I told Singaporean teachers one of the reasons I was in Singapore was to learn about their excellent education system, they would usually laugh at my naiveté. Often they would mention that Singapore was aspiring to be more like the US in terms of moving away from testing, and also trying to encourage more critical thinking and creativity in the classroom. Indeed, the  program that took me to Singapore aims to bring American and British teaching styles to Singapore to help change the system.

In conclusion, there is much to learn from studying other education systems, but they are not perfect and will not provide a quick fix. Studying other systems, like Singapore’s, provides the opportunity to see the effects of educational policies and access them. Since it is always easier to focus on the successes of other education systems while focusing on the flaws of your own, one should mind this tendency. Yes, education in the United States has many issues, but the US should not lose its strengths while trying to fix its problems.