Postcard from Singapore: Elevating teaching in a well-funded, aligned system

Posted on August 09, 2018

By Jim O’Connor
Project Director
Advance Illinois

Full funding. Alignment from the early grades through career. An elevated and modernized teaching profession. These are all aspects of the education system in Singapore, where I visited late last year with a group from Teach For All’s Education Policy Community of Practice. While there, we met with teachers, agency leadership, and even futurists who work for the Prime Minister’s Office whose job it is to advise political leadership on the needs of the future workforce and economy based on current trends (see their latest report here—page 40).

Advance Illinois’ Jim O’Connor in Singapore, where he visited late last year.

Since Singapore began participating in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006, it has consistently ranked in the top 5 countries for reading, math, and science. [1] However, they are the first to note the advantages that they have as a country. With 5.6 million residents in an area barely larger than the City of Chicago, Singapore is relatively small and compact. [2] It has had the same political party in power for 53 years, which has led to a level of policy stability.

Come with me to Singapore for five observations about its education system.

Singapore supports school systems with sustained, adequate funding levels.  Education has been one of the top three governmental expenses in Singapore for at least the past 15 years, demonstrating a consistent commitment to adequately funding the education system. [3] In comparison, where Singapore dedicates 17% of its spending to education, only 2% of the U.S. federal budget goes to education. [4]

Singapore prioritizes regular school review, curricular reform, and support for teachers in times of transition. Every six years, the School Appraisal Branch of the Ministry of Education (MOE) conducts an external review of all schools in the country to identify areas for improvement.[5] Following each review cycle, the MOE creates stakeholder committees of agency and school representatives, who accordingly design, test, and gather feedback from schools on proposed new curricula. Rather than rushing reform, teachers are also informed of curricula changes over two years before full implementation. This in-depth and regular review for school improvement, involvement of diverse stakeholders, and careful implementation of policy over time serves students well.

Singapore tightly aligns collaboration between different education agencies. The MOE, National Institute of Education (NIE) for teacher training and schools have a strong collaborative relationship that improves efficacy and quality. The ministry develops policy, and the NIE conducts research and provides pre-service training to educators.[6] When asked about Singapore’s strengths, researchers at the NIE point to fact that no education policy is announced without a plan for building the capacity to meet it. [7] The tightly shared responsibility and accountability between the MOE, NIE, and schools allow Singapore to carry out reform initiatives that effectively reach both schools and teacher preparation programs.

Singapore works hard to attract, select, train, and grow teacher talent. The MOE advertises teaching on a variety of platforms to ‘sell’ the profession as an attractive career. Tuition for teaching candidates is completely free. If a candidate commits to teaching for at least three years, they also receive a stipend equivalent to 60% of a teacher salary while in training. The many individuals attracted to teaching then undergo the highly selective entry process to attend the NIE, the nation’s only teaching college. Successful teacher candidates must be in the top third of their secondary school graduating class, pass a literacy test, and demonstrate evidence of interest in education and serving diverse student bodies, communication skills and the potential to be a good role model.  Finally, the NIE only accepts candidates for areas where there is a need.  For the most recent year, they decreased the number of math and science entrants according to decreased need. Imagine that!

Singapore invests heavily in teacher development. Teaching candidates spend 22 weeks of their training as student teachers practicing in front of K-12 students alongside a master teacher. Early-career teachers then receive two years of induction support while teaching only 80% of an experienced teacher’s load. Throughout their careers, Singapore teachers receive 100 hours off for professional learning each year and can access funding for study leave. As teachers become more experienced, they can advance their careers in established teaching, leadership, or specialist tracks that allow them to personally develop and improve the system with their expertise.

We can look to other countries like Singapore for both inspiration and ideas on how to move forward to create a system – from recruitment, to preparation, to teacher learning to career advancement – that complements and supports its different parts.  The result will be a highly capable teaching staff who deliver effective instruction each day.

Jim O’Connor wrote about his recent Teach for All experience in Finland in a previous postcard.

[1] OECD 2006 participating countries: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/39725224.pdf

OECD 2009 rankings: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/46619703.pdf

OECD 2012 rankings: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf

OECD 2015 rankings: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf

[2] The City of Chicago is 234 square miles: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/about/facts.html

Singapore is 721 square km, or 278 square miles: https://data.gov.sg/dataset/total-land-area-of-singapore

[3] See “Summary Tables of Revenue & Expenditure Estimates” from https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/, 2003-15

[4] CBPP, “Policy Basics: Where do our Federal Dollars Go?”, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/policy-basics-where-do-our-federal-tax-dollars-go

[5] OECD, “Singapore: Rapid Improvement Followed by Strong Performance”https://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/46581101.pdf

[6] https://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/46581101.pdf

[7] https://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/46581101.pdf

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