The test is done and the results are in.

The PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment, is a test administered across 72 nations, 35 of which are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For the 2015 administration, Singapore took first place in math, science, and reading, an impressive record that deserves further scrutiny.

Its high test results are a culmination of many factors, but the most important ones are a unified, well-designed national curriculum, a highly rigorous teacher selection, education, and training process, and a cultural emphasis on the importance of education.

Though all of these traits are noteworthy, especially to American education reformers, only the first three can be changed by educators. The last problem, that of cultural perceptions, is a bit harder to fix, especially given the many movies and media that show teachers, as well as their profession, in a poor light.

A note to keep in mind…

Before we begin, it should be noted that Singapore is drastically different than America. For instance, the United States consists of 324 million people living in fifty states across ten million square kilometers. On the other hand, Singapore has approximately six million people across less than seven hundred square kilometers–a city-state, rather than a nation-state.

The demographics are quite different as well. A legacy of its colonial past, Singapore’s main ethnic groups are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and a smattering of mixed-race individuals. America, on the other hand, sees ethnic groups and religions from nearly every corner of the world–a sample size that is far larger than Singapore’s.

Any comparison, then, has to take these realities into account. But that’s not to say that there aren’t lessons that can be drawn from Singapore that can help bring about real, lasting change for our students.

Government intervention

When Singapore won its independence from Britain, it was a country mired in poverty, susceptible to ethnic violence between its Malay, Chinese, and Indian inhabitants, and threatened by Malaysia, its larger, northern neighbor.

Thankfully, Singapore possessed a forward-thinking, capable, and authoritarian leader: Lee Kuan Yew. While many of his policies are hotly debated, his unwavering commitment to education proved critical to Singapore’s success.

Under Lee, the government spared no expense in modernizing its colonial-era school system. Networks of schools were built out, scholarships offered to promising pupils, curriculums were constantly revised and improved, and English was declared the common language (though Tamil, Malay, and Mandarin Chinese are also offered).

In time, free, innovative education proved to be the foundation for Singapore’s success.

Inside the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Eva-Marie Ayala, Dallas News.

Inside the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Eva-Marie Ayala, Dallas News.

Rigorous teacher selection and training

Along the same lines, teachers proved critical in Singapore’s transformation. Like Finland, another top scorer on the PISA, teacher selection and training is of the utmost importance.

First, teachers are selected from the top third of their high school graduating class, ensuring a strong record of academic achievement. All teachers are trained at one of two institutes in the country, rather than at local, state, public, and private schools (as in the United States). Also, unlike America, there are no alternate certification programs like Teach for America.

Singapore's National Institute of Education. Image Source: The Times Higher Education.

Singapore’s National Institute of Education. Image Source: The Times Higher Education.

Second, Singaporean teachers are supported with consistent, practical professional development, often led by more experienced teachers. If you’ve read our previous entry on the Japanese trend of jugyokenkyu, or lesson study, you’ll understand just how important it is for teachers to refine and hone their teaching technique.

Lastly, Singaporean teachers are paid well, roughly equivalent to that of an engineer. To ensure quality, the Ministry of Education monitors teachers, though in recent years, there has been a move away from American-style accountability heavily emphasizing test scores and data, and towards a more inclusive method to assess teacher effectiveness.

A Singapore-style math curriculum

Interestingly, Singapore’s well-designed curriculum lacks the rote memorization often associated with many Asian education systems.

Instead, Singapore urges mastery over memory, building a solid foundation of math skills in students before asking them to tackle more difficult challenges. Critically, fewer concepts are taught each year, but to a much deeper level, with heavy use of manipulatives and visualization.

For instance, Singaporean students use model drawing to better understand complex problems. In the example below (taken from our own newsletter), we provide an example of how color, shapes, and charts can help students break down an equation (123+256) into an orderly process.

swun math illustration

How to solve 379-123 with pictures. Image Source: Swun Math

First, students break down the numbers to be added (256 and 123) by place values, drawing different shapes in different colors for each digit: green boxes represent hundreds, red lines tens, and blue dots ones. By combining all the shapes and numbers, students can then understand that 123+256 is equivalent to 300+70+9, or 379.

Clearly, using model drawing makes solving this problem so much easier and more intuitive.

How America can Implement Singapore’s Lessons

Yet this approach isn’t foreign to the American curriculum.

Actually, that previous sentence is misleading. As previously discussed, not only is Common Core a set of standards and goals rather than a full curriculum, but American education is decentralized, turning authority over to the local, not national, level. Unlike Singapore’s tightly scripted curriculum, in America, schools within the same state may use different curriculums.

But instead of being a weakness, this decentralization can be an advantage. Because of this loose, bottom-up structure, school districts are free to adapt whatever best practices appeal to them, or to change their curriculum as they see fit (so long as it meets the standards outlined by Common Core).

In fact, this is already happening. Throughout the nation, there is a trend towards Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, a practice not unlike the Japanese institution of jugyokenkyu, or lesson study. Like jugyokenkyu, PLCs are a collaborative process: an organic collaboration process that lets teachers pitch in and reshape curriculum across schools and districts.

In short, PLCs are actually ground-level incubators for the sort of Singaporean-style math techniques that are championed here at Swun Math. Consider this scenario: a second-year, third grade teacher is unsure how to better teach the deep thinking and math fluency mandated by Common Core.

Instead of sticking with her outdated textbooks, which teach subtraction through memorizing formulas rather than developing mathematical fluency, she can go to her PLC for resources. There, a fellow teacher explains how to use model drawing in subtraction and gives her this model.

This is just a small example, but PLCs are a positive trend that encourage teamwork, discussion, and sharing of best practices. As we’ve discussed previously, cooperation is key to teacher improvement, and given the local nature of the American education system, perhaps the best way to introduce and popularize new methodology across schools.

What Singapore can teach us…

Ultimately, Singapore, despite its drastically different circumstances, history, and demographics, can teach Americans a lot about education. Though it was once stricken by poverty and beset by racial tension, its innovative government stepped in, building a prosperous meritocracy on top of a solid foundation in education.

That’s something that America, faced with decentralized education and gaps in STEM education, could do well to learn. After all, our children are the future, and how we educate them will shape that future for better or worse.