By Fernando Reimers, E.B. O'Donnell, Lisa Battaglino, Connie K. Chung, Mitalene Fletcher, David Harris, Joey Lee, Vanessa Lipschitz, David Lussier, Christine McCormick, Megan O’Keefe, Paul F. Toner, Eleonora Villegas-Reimers
You can download the rest of the book, for free, here.
Included below is an excerpt from Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore: Reflections on a Visit to Singapore in 2015 by a Delegation of Educators from Massachusetts. The book is a series of short reflections from a group of educators from Massachusetts who traveled together to Singapore to learn about that country’s remarkable education journey. Our simple goal in publishing this document was to have a tangible and practical resource we can use to share with colleagues our reflections about lessons learned on that visit, as well as our thoughts about possible implications of Singapore’s practice for educators in Massachusetts.
Below are our recommendations. We welcome your responses in the comments section below.
Implications for Educator Preparation and Support in Massachusetts
Upon returning from the visit to Singapore, the participants in the delegation identified a number of possible implications of what we learned for policy and practice in Massachusetts. The central lessons we drew from our visit center around the power of a clear, bold and concise vision; commitment to implementation; the importance of coherence and alignment to implement that vision; and the crucial role of ubiquitous opportunities to build capacity of teachers and other educators. Massachusetts could deepen the effectiveness of its education reform efforts as a result of being more intentional with regards to these four Cs:
- Clear and Bold Vision
- Commitment to Implementation
All of which would help us act more systemically, guided by long-term goals.
In this section we explain each of these four themes, and then develop specific implications of each theme for six stakeholder groups which are central in the design and implementation of education transformation: policy makers, state and district leaders, teacher education institutions, school principals, teachers, and the public.
Clear and Bold Vision
Real clarity about the intended goals of compulsory education from pre-school to high school is critical for success. This is because goals provide direction to the many individuals who participate in sustaining effective instruction. Clear goals are, in effect, the glue that holds the system together while providing direction that results in powerful, sustained learning for students. Education goals are structured in hierarchies that go from the most specific learning goals for a lesson, to the broader goals of what social good should result from having school graduates master particular competencies. There should be clarity and shared vision about those goals and purposes among teachers, school principals, parents, and others who support their work, such as district and state leaders and the general public.
Effective goals should inspire coordinated hard work that results in powerful instruction and deep learning, in the same manner in which a music sheet enables an orchestra to produce beautiful music rather than an incoherent collection of sounds. To be inspiring, those goals should be bold, and they should withstand the “why” test—that is, they should provide clear answers as people ask more than one time “why” about each proposed goal.
We were impressed by the boldness with which Singapore has framed 21st century K-12 curriculum standards as aligned to their aspiration to be an integrated knowledge economy that is positioned for global leadership. We were equally impressed by how a clear set of ambitious goals, reframed and refined at four distinct periods in Singapore’s education’s history, has enabled their education system to transition from giving few children the opportunity to access school just five decades ago, to an exemplar of comprehensive education for all students today. Singapore’s vision is especially compelling because of how concise the vision was for each major stage of education reform, thus providing a level of focus around a specific direction that framed the vision and a clear logic to why this direction/need was most important at the specific time in the country’s development.
Commitment to Implementation
If there is one feature that distinguishes Singapore’s efforts, it is the clear commitment to implementation, to execution. Planning for implementation means more than articulating clear policy goals and strategies, it means developing a roadmap of who is to do what, with what resources, and in what timeframe; translating goals into a real strategy that can guide actions that result in more effective instruction. In Singapore, education policy is not meant to just inspire in the hope that some actions by some people will follow, but instead is meant to guide and support execution by all teachers, in all schools, and in ways that ensure coherence between policy intent and practice.
Such commitment to implementation is essential; without it, policy goals are just unfunded mandates. Commitment to implementation involves not only clear roadmaps and execution strategies, but also adequate budgets and resources in all forms to carry out the actions necessary to produce the results intended by policy. Commitment to implementation also requires attention to strategic communication so that the many stakeholders in the education system can be on the same page. Most importantly, commitment to implementation requires sufficient continuity of efforts and time to allow goals to translate into effective practice.
Since goals are only as effective as are the specific actions that they inspire, and since these actions involve multiple interlocutors in the system, it is essential that these different players act in synergistic ways and not at cross-purposes from each other. The alignment of the actions undertaken by different agencies and units in the education system, and by the different teachers that students will come into contact with during their schooling, is what enables students to experience coherent, effective, sustained, and deep opportunities to learn core values and essential skills.
Singapore illustrates how such articulation of the various components of the education system produces results that are greater than the sum of the parts. This coherence is supported by strategic use of communication, as well as deep relationships between schools, the ministry of education, and the National Institute of Education, which are reinforced by frequent rotation of staff among these institutions.
Clear goals, especially if they are ambitious, call for levels of effectiveness in practice that are likely to exceed the current capacities of teachers or others who support their work. This is the reason that opportunities for teacher preparation and development are crucial. Effective teaching can only come from sustained commitment to perfecting one’s practice, and robust systems of professional development make such opportunities ubiquitous.
Singapore’s commitment to ongoing professional development, to purposeful talent management of all human resources in the education system, is at the core of its success. It is the foundation of coherence and the most concrete expression of its commitment to executing education policy goals.
Given these lessons, what specific actions should key stakeholders involved in education reform in Massachusetts advance or sustain that would increase the potential for achieving our education goals? We propose some actions in the following section, grouping them into the four themes just described, for policy makers, state and district leaders, teacher education institutions, school principals, teachers, and the public.
Implications for State Education Policymakers, Including Leaders from the State House, Executive Office of Education, the Commissioners of Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education
Clear and bold vision
- Make explicit and communicate broadly the expected goals of K-12 education and explain how they align with a vision for the future of Massachusetts. Articulate ambitious and rigorous goals that describe how education will prepare students for careers, civic engagement, and life, and goals that aim to increase the number of students prepared for college while providing alternative pathways to career success. For example, provide funding and visibility for career and technical education aligned to the needs of employers, including expansion of alternative high school pathways for students who struggle in traditional academic environments.
- The desired learning outcomes should include the multiple competencies—cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal—that are essential for economic and civic participation in the 21st century, as well as the content knowledge to sustain a knowledge economy in Massachusetts. These goals need to be developed at various levels of specificity: (1) at a broad enough level to be communicated widely and understood by all relevant stakeholders, and (2) as curriculum frameworks that can guide the work of districts, teacher education programs, and service providers.
- Implement a communications strategy designed to effectively reach all relevant stakeholders and align their understanding of the expected goals. Help all relevant constituencies understand the difference between goals and curriculum frameworks and assessment instruments, and articulate how the assessment instruments reflect the intended goals. The result of this strategy should be that every constituency understands how they can support teachers and schools in their efforts to help students gain the essential competencies articulated in the goals from their respective sphere of influence.
Commitment to implementation
- Policy shifts should be accompanied by: (1) explicit implementation strategies and plans; (2) budgets which are adequate to translate those plans into activities and produce results; (3) expected implementation timelines that allow enough time for practice to change; (4) clear integration with teacher education programs; and (5) an infrastructure sufficient to sustain focus and adequate follow up.
- Incentivize the revision of the existing common frameworks for teacher education institutions so they are aligned with the expected goals of K-12 education. Given the large number of institutions involved in pre-service teacher education in the state, support the articulation of teacher preparation programs, perhaps drawing on the work of the Department of Higher Education in creating transfer pathways across higher education institutions, for example.
- Support the development of a robust infrastructure of teacher professional development for practicing teachers aligned with the expected goals of K-12 education. This infrastructure would integrate and foster collaboration and innovation among teacher preparation institutions, districts, teacher organizations, and other providers of professional development.
- Develop formal pathways for teachers to advance in their profession, which may include but not require entering administration for advancement.
Implications for State and District Leaders, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Leaders, and Superintendents
Clear and bold vision
- Develop and execute a communications strategy that conveys the goals of the system to relevant stakeholders, translates those into specific learning goals and curriculum, and highlights good practice at the classroom and school level in supporting instruction aligned with those goals, as well as practices at the district level that are supportive of such instruction. Contribute to building a positive narrative about public education that showcases positive examples of practice, and that values expert knowledge developed by practitioners. As part of this strategy, support the creation of a platform that supports the sharing and use of knowledge developed by practitioners about effective 21st century education practices.
- Strengthen articulation between districts and teacher education institutions in ways that provide continuous training and support for district administrators and principals in conducting meaningful evaluations and identifying actionable recommendations for improving classroom practice.
- Develop the capacity of school boards to create leadership pipelines that encourage growth from teacher to principal to superintendent within the systems so that the values of the school system are sustained long-term.
Commitment to implementation
- Create incentives for collaboration between districts to allow them to more cost effectively differentiate how the diverse needs of students are serviced. This might ultimately lead to more district consolidation to increase program options, reduce administrative overhead, and increase direct support to students.
- Define and clarify roles within the system in ways that bring different efforts and initiatives for achieving education goals into alignment.
- Develop multiple and fluid relationships between various institutions in the system to strengthen connections between policy and practice. This might include a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) program that provides several teacher and principal residencies, and more field visits by DESE staff.
- Teachers and Principals would serve one to two year residencies at DESE to better inform the development of new policies and regulations from a practitioner’s perspective.
- DESE staff would spend more time in the field observing and seeking input from practitioners regarding how DESE can best support practitioners in the field.
- Advance initiatives that support the creation of school cultures anchored in the recognition of education as an expert profession, and that cultivate and reward expertise and professional merit.
- Develop teacher career ladders with multiple and ongoing opportunities for professional development aligned with expected goals. Include opportunities for rotations into multiple roles at various levels of the system in teacher trajectories as a way to create shared perspective and stronger inputs into policy making and teacher training.
- Advance substantial initiatives to support ongoing professional development of teachers in ways that leverage public-private partnerships to foster innovation, effectiveness, and impact at scale.
- Establish high quality mentor program for all new principals, just as there are for superintendents and teachers.
Implications for Teacher Education Institutions, Department of Higher Education and Presidents/Education Program Leaders
- Participate in collaboratives of institutions that seek to align teacher preparation program goals with system level goals.
- Strengthen curriculum of teacher preparation to better support the development of capacities to teach competencies necessary for life in the 21st century (cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal).
- Raise entry and exit requirements for candidates into teacher preparation programs so graduates have the necessary capacities for effective and powerful instruction. For example, for undergraduate teacher education programs these should include:
- Solid academic preparation at the pre-collegiate level.
- Letters of recommendation from current teachers specifically indicating a candidate’s potential as a teacher.
- Stronger practice-based residency experiences early in and throughout the teacher preparation program.
- Completion of a performance-based assessment under supervision of an accomplished teacher and preparation program supervisor before becoming a teacher of record.
- Establish robust feedback loops with schools and districts that place graduates so as to continuously improve teacher preparation to serve the requirements of students in those schools. Once teachers enter the work force, there should be a strong connection between districts and teacher education institutions to provide feedback on teacher preparedness, to better inform and improve teacher preparation programs, and to provide additional job embedded supports and professional development.
- Create incentives for faculty to engage with practitioners in school improvement efforts and to collaborate with practitioners in codifying knowledge generated by expert practitioners.
- Improve the selection criteria of mentor teachers to ensure the best possible role models for new teachers. Require a rotation within internship placements to allow exposure to a broad swath of pedagogy and student populations.
Implications for School Leaders
Clear and bold vision
- Create school cultures anchored in the recognition of education as an expert profession, that cultivate and reward expertise and professional merit, and that are built on the belief that “we can’t afford to waste any talent.”
- Create opportunities for job-embedded continuous teacher development. Build partnerships with other schools and teacher preparation institutions for this purpose.
- Develop talent management systems built on the premise that we can’t afford to waste any talent.
- Develop school cultures that foster collaboration and teamwork in achieving results for students.
- Foster cultures open to continuous learning and improvement, including learning from other schools and school systems.
- Emphasize effective teaching practice and differentiated support for students rather than class size and other statistically less significant drivers of student growth.
Implications for Teachers
Clear and bold vision
- Identify the curriculum goals and to translate those into effective curriculum and pedagogies.
- Develop the necessary expertise to support effective instructional practice and become professionals who are continuously learning.
- Codify their own practice in ways that adds to the knowledge base about powerful instruction and 21st century education.
- Place a premium on collaboration and continuous learning from peers.
Implications for the Public
Clear and bold vision
- Develop and implement programs so that the public will see teachers as nation builders who are developing the talent of all young people by preparing them for success in a 21st century knowledge economy and as active participants in our democratic institutions.
Commitment to implementation
- Hold elected officials accountable for providing the necessary support to public schools so they can meet the learning needs of students in the 21st century. Support education as a high priority policy of elected officials with adequate budgets, skilled leadership, and the sustained effort necessary to allow policy cycles to yield results and to support ongoing learning and improvement.
- Provide resources to educate school committee members on the fundamental drivers for effective education so they can support and promote them within their district.