by Connie K. Chung
In October 2015, I visited Singapore with colleagues from Massachusetts who are leaders of universities, foundations, research organizations, and nonprofits working in education. We focused on learning about Singapore’s education system during our five-day visit. I highlight below a few thoughts from our trip.
The key difference between our education system in the United States and the Singaporean system is that while we think and invest in individuals and programs, aware of our short political, policy, and funding cycles, Singaporeans think and invest in systems, taking advantage of their longer term political and policy cycles. I draw this thesis from a few observations made on the trip, outlined below.
1. How systems support 21st century teaching and learning in Singapore
Singaporean teachers enter a highly developed, thoughtfully constructed system of training and selection that tracks, supports, and develops them. While there is a high bar for entry into the profession, and a rigorous evaluation of teachers that includes a way to dismiss low performing teachers, once a teacher enters a teacher preparation program, there is a clearly articulated pathway for professional growth, as a master teacher, school leader, or subject specialist. Teacher retention levels are high, and only 3% of the teachers leave each year. Regular and systematic transfer of personnel among the Ministry of Education, schools, teacher preparation and research institutions also ensure that practice, policy, and preparation are tightly linked in the city-state; that there is a high likelihood that what teachers learn in their preparation programs is aligned with what they will actually need to do in the classroom; and that policymakers and researchers have practitioners’ points of view in mind as they develop policy and design their research agendas.
Furthermore, in Singapore, there is an assumption that teaching well is a highly demanding and skilled work, requiring systematic cultivation and support. Thus, policymakers appear to focus their attention on developing a system that will identify and support better learning and teaching in their schools, rather than on methods to reward and punish individual teachers, schools, and districts as the primary lever of change. For example, they recently established the Academy of Singapore Teachers that builds a “teacher-led culture of professional excellence centered on the holistic development of the child” in their schools. Individual teachers may have weaknesses, but the overwhelming strength of the Singaporean system of professional development appears to be designed to compensate for those shortcomings, ensuring that students will have a good chance of encountering effective teachers.
Similarly, Singapore’s educational practices are part of a system, knitted together under a single comprehensive national framework and a series of long-term national strategies for teaching and learning. During our trip, we were told about the history of Singapore, with the identification of four key periods of educational policy that led to the development of the current education system, with each period lasting 14 to 17 years. This relatively long-term, system-wide and systematic approach education ensures that principals and teachers in Singapore have the opportunity to not just know the driving principles and key ideas for the system, but also have the time and resources with which to put them to practice and execute them.
For example, on our trip we visited the Crescent Girls School, where the principal was piloting new ways to use technology in the classroom. She was not just helping her teachers and students experience new ways of learning, not just following the latest entrepreneurial idea she had picked up from her days at Stanford, and not just ensuring that her schools remained attractive to parents and funders. Instead, because her school was a designated pilot school tasked with finding ways other schools in Singapore might more effectively use technology in their classrooms, she had a wealth of new equipment and support staff to assist her in implementing her ideas, including the funding to form a partnership with a research organization at Stanford to assess their progress in this work. The decisions made by the principal as a building leader appear to have been informed by a larger, unifying vision and coherent education strategy for the country as a whole, which allowed room for innovation and improvement. Under such a coherent system of practice, goals and principles are not just talking and advocacy points but are supported with human and financial resources; thus, they have a higher chance of not just being implemented, but of being developed into good practices, refined over a period of years, and then spread to other schools throughout the education system .
2. Singapore’s ambitious and comprehensive learning goals for students
Perhaps because they have the luxury of knowing that they have an entire system behind them, Singapore’s education leaders take on ambitious and comprehensive learning goals for their students. They explicitly plan for and aim to provide an education to their students that is expansive and responsive to the changing local and global contexts, including past, present, and future needs, challenges, and opportunities in their country and in the world. We saw these aspirations as our visit coincided with Singapore’s celebration of its 50th anniversary “as one people” and less than a year after the passing of its founding Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew. During our visit, we saw colorful banners adorning the streets to celebrate this anniversary and heard presenters who spoke of the race riots between the Malays and the Chinese that Singapore had experienced 50 years earlier, and how they deliberately focus their efforts to ensure that the current mix of Chinese, Malay, Indians, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other ethnic and religious groups would live well together. We found out that Singapore’s “desired student outcomes” for all of their students include being “a concerned citizen,” an “active contributor,” with “civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills.”
For example, during our trip, we attended a student fair, where students training for educational management positions presented what they had learned about other countries’ education systems after self-organizing trips to these countries. We also learned that their principal training program includes the exercise of envisioning what Singapore might look like in 20 years and thinking about how to align their schools to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future. Thus, I had the distinct impression, at least from our trip, that Singaporean education leaders at all levels were keenly aware of their history, continually thought about the future, and used the present to nurture their students and organizations so that the country would be well prepared to thrive.
3. Playing the long game in the United States
Not having had the opportunity to visit a Singaporean classroom during the trip, however, I do not know to what degree these principles and values are actually taught to Singaporean students. But, I do know that in the United States, we have educators who are keenly aware of the racial tensions in our country’s history, who are mindful of the pressing need to teach students about other parts of the planet even as our world becomes more globalized, and the need to make education relevant, rigorous, and responsive to present and future challenges such as concerns about the environment, peace and security, and widening inequality; they also work effectively to address these concerns in the classroom. In fact, I’d posit that organizations such as Facing History and Ourselves, the Asia Society, and Expeditionary Learning/EL Education, among many others, do well in developing curricula and resources to support many of the same goals that the Singaporean system espouses.
What we do not see as much in the United States, however, is a sustained and large-scale effort to implement such programs at the systems level, and the effort to command the necessary financial and human resources to do so. We let our schools scramble for ad hoc funding and support from foundations and nonprofits, on short policy and programmatic cycles. For example, the average tenure of a US superintendent fluctuated from 2.8 years in 2008 to 3.18 years in 2014, according to the Council of Great City Schools, and funding cycles do not run in decades but in months and years. Under such short leadership, policy, and funding cycles – and with shifting priorities and the overwhelming pressure to align organizational goals and resources solely to produce measurable results – schools and programs tend to focus on efforts that produce short-term gains aligned to narrow goals.
As a result, we have a plethora of organizations that focus not only on a small area of concern, but on one facet of one aspect of one small area of concern, making advocacy our priority, rather than coordination, coherence, alignment, effective implementation, and systemic/ systematic improvement. After 20 years spent in education, both as a classroom teacher and a researcher speaking with practitioners, I have made the claim to colleagues in the past that in such a context, an unofficial but nevertheless a critical competency of a “good” principal and superintendent in the US is the ability to create the political room for their staff to invest in long-term, sustained improvement efforts, to “protect” them from the buffeting winds of policy priorities that appear to change every 2-3 years, and to stay in their jobs long enough to build relationships with community members and organizations that are critical to marshaling the resources necessary to sustain an excellent school and district.
My thoughts in this letter are reflective not just of our trip, but also come from having worked with colleagues from the National Institute of Education in Singapore and from research institutions in four other countries over the last two years, as part of my work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Global Education Innovation Initiative. We just finished writing a book about the goals and purposes of education in the 21st century in six nations, and are writing our second book together about exemplary programs in seven countries that are making an effort to teach students the competencies they will need to thrive in the 21st century. One of the preliminary findings from our second book might be that the kind of project-based teaching and learning that is relevant to developing in students not just STEM/STEAM competencies but the interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies necessary to thrive in our present world, requires the efforts of not just individual teachers and schools, but of teams of teachers, networks of schools, multiple stakeholders including teacher education and principal training programs, private foundations, and entire educational systems. Perhaps with these letters from Singapore, we can instigate the kind of conversations and activities that will lead to continuing to develop in Massachusetts and in the United States a systemic and systematic approach to teaching and learning, so that policymakers and education leaders are encouraged to play the long game.
Connie K. Chung is the Research Director at GEII. Other letters written by members of this trip can be downloaded for free and read here:
 Personal communication, Dr. Ee-Ling Low, Head of Office of Strategic Planning and Academic Quality, National Institution of Education, 2015.
 Because our time in Singapore was so short, I’m not sure to what degree these resources are equitably distributed among the different schools and neighborhoods; but overall, in general, there appears to be an explicit effort to support students, including the creation of special schools for students at risk of dropping out, such as the NorthLight School, and the Institute of Technical Education to support those who are sorted into vocational schools. Also, the brevity of this letter precludes me from expressing the concerns and drawbacks I see in the Singaporean education system and the benefits I see in the US system, so I submit this letter knowing that it may read as being too laudatory of one, and too detractive of the other.
 We first looked for systems, but could not find them, so looked to programs.