Digging Deeper into Singaporean Teacher Development: 5 Lessons for U.S. Policy Leaders

Much has also been written on Singapore’s systematic approach to teacher development. However, a few facts about teaching in Singapore are in order—especially as U.S. policy leaders are finally awakening to the idea of teacher leadership.

A lot has been written about the rapid rise of Singapore and its public education system—and for good reason. For over a decade, the students of Singapore have ranked at (or near) the top of their peers around the globe, including the United States. In 1997, Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched its Thinking Schools, Learning Nation approach, which included a major transformation of the teaching profession.

The Thinking Schools, Learning Nation will redefine the role of teachers… Every school must be a model learning organization. Teachers and principals will constantly look out for new ideas and practices, and continuously refresh their own knowledge. Teaching will itself be a learning profession, like any other knowledge-based profession of the future. —Goh Chok Tong

Much has also been written on Singapore’s systematic approach to teacher development. (See this piece from 2006, as well as a more recent one). However, a few facts about teaching in Singapore are in order—especially as U.S. policy leaders are finally awakening to the idea of teacher leadership.

In a nation of six million people, the government supports one teacher education institution, and about 300 teaching scholarships are awarded each year by the Ministry of Education. Candidates have opportunities to engage in a wide variety of clinical trainings and research projects with teacher education faculty. Of about 40,000 credentialed educators nationwide, about 80 percent (or 33,000) are teachers, offering classroom experts more time to lead and teach students. Principals must also serve effectively as teachers before becoming administrators. However, in Singapore, teachers are far less likely to receive instructional feedback from their principals, in contrast to their American counterparts.

Why is this the case? Teachers in Singapore are far more likely to receive feedback from assigned mentors and colleagues. The average Singaporean teacher only teaches 17-20 hours a week, compared to 30 hours of weekly teaching time logged by their U.S. colleagues.

With these facts in mind—and digging a bit deeper into the Singaporean system of teacher development—here are five simple lessons for U.S. policy leaders to consider:

  1. Pay the full cost of teacher preparation for top recruits to enter teaching;
  2. Expect all teacher candidates to conduct action research into problems of practice in local schools—preparing them for lifetime of inquiry;
  3. Reduce the teaching load of teachers, first and foremost in high-needs schools, so that teachers can learn from one another;
  4. Overhaul our current approach to teacher evaluation by placing a premium on teachers who spread their pedagogical expertise; and
  5. Re-think the use of resources so more full-time administrative and supervisory roles are transformed into hybrid roles so classroom experts can lead without leaving.

Almost every Singaporean educator I have met over the years tells me that the teacher development policies and practices they have implemented have been learned from U.S. teachers, administrators, education faculty, and researchers. It is time for U.S. teaching policy to reflect what we have known for some time about what matters most for teachers and the students they teach and serve.

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