How Singapore Leaves No Child Behind

In an Education Week Teaching Ahead column last May, I wrote about a former student who dropped out of high school to pursue a low wage, full time construction job. I tried to help him find a way to stay in school while still following his passion of working in construction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to direct him to any options that would serve his interests and needs.

At the end of the Teaching Ahead piece, I referenced Singapore as a nation that has created opportunities for students who are not interested in an academic route. In the United States, 25% of students who start high school do not graduate. In Singapore, 90% of the bottom 25% of students graduate from the Institute for Technical Education (ITE), a vocational option available to Singaporean upper secondary students.

The three ITE campuses in Singapore serve about 26,000 students. Typically, ITE students are 17-19 years old or the equivalent of sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the United States. 25% of upper secondary students in Singapore attend ITE campuses, another 25% attend junior colleges (academic high schools), and 40% attend Polytechnic or other specialized schools. The remaining 10% go to independent or private schools.

Last month, while attending the Global Cities Education Network meeting in Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit ITE’s central campus. It was an eye-opening experience.

The campus itself is beautiful. I felt like I was strolling around an elite university campus, not a school for high school kids who opt out of academics. There are restaurants, a grocery store, fountains, and indoor greenery. 

We were introduced to a variety of programs that ITE offers to students, including culinary arts, fashion design, video game design, flower arranging, eyewear design, cosmetology, architecture, digital animation, filmmaking, light and sound production, among many others. ITE develops its programs in close collaboration with industry in Singapore. If the industry exists, there is an aligned program and most likely, available jobs upon graduation.

Halfway through our tour of ITE-Central, we visited the outdoor aerospace classroom. Amazingly, there was an operational helicopter, a Learjet, and a 737. Yes, a 737. 

The Ministry of Education has worked very hard to transform the image of vocational education in Singapore from an option of last resort to what they now call a model of “hands on, minds-on, hearts-on” learning. Of course, some prejudice against non-academic tracks still exists, but the perception of ITE in society has greatly improved. Honestly, as I walked through the ITE campus, I wished I was 17 again and could take classes there.

Singapore began its reform of vocational education in 1992 – just over twenty years ago. At ITE we saw evidence of:

  1. Beautiful state-of-the-art technical education facilities.
  2. A close partnership between education and industry sectors.
  3. A significant effort to rebrand technical education.
  4. Enough room for 25% of high school students to enroll in vocational programs.

Is a similar paradigm shift in the United States possible or are we too focused on college for all students? Please share your thoughts.

And for another take on vocational education in the United States, see Marc Tucker’s recent blog post

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  • Sherlyngambrell

    It is possible

    I do believe that this is possible in the United States. Back when I was in school, students had a choice if they wanted to follow an academic or technical route. I think that we have pushed students into college so much that there is a stigma attached to those who don’t want college. It makes me sad and angry because I feel a lot of students drop out because they don’t see college in their future and thus are disinterested and bored.  Talk about closing the achievement gap, bring back opportunities for all students.   This also brings up another thought that has been lingering in my mind.  If the “college” skills are so important then why aren’t they integrating more into our high schools. I think Singapore is right in mixing the high school/junior college framework. University should be more specialized.

  • Margery Ginsberg

    similar experience and some things to wonder about

    I was there about a month ago with Raymond Wlodkowski.  Colleagues from Tamasek Polytechnic asked us to speak at their faculty development institute on the topic of intrinsic motivation as a foundation for learning.  We had an experience similar to yours.  That said, the dliemmas were somewhat similar to the U.S.  For example, I had hoped to visit some K-12 schools, however it was test prep week.  At the same time, the Minister of Educatoin was in the news speaking to Singapore’s need for community members and workers who are creative and complex thinkers,who deal with ambiguity, and so forth.  From speaking with taxi drivers, hotel workers, and colleagues, this is not an easy pursuit. Many families have been socialized to believe that high test scores are what matter most and what will ultimately predict the future of their children. This seems to cut across income, language, and religous groups. Lots for all of us to learn.


  • BriannaCrowley



    Thanks for this fantastic post complete with the compelling visuals and hyperlinks for more learning. As I teach in a high-performing school in a highly educated community, over 90% of our students pursue post-secondary academic schooling. Yet, I also teach the 2 sections of English to that other 10%–the ones who don’t find their passions in the academic classes, but are creative, smart, and want to work with their hands. My heart goes out to them when I see them dragging themselves from desks to desks not finding their tasks engaging to their skills or curiosity. 

    I wish we had this viable option to offer them–not a last resort, but a different path to a different version of success. 

    I cross-posted this to CTQ’s profile. Hope it generates some discussion and visibility for this fascinating look into a different nation’s educational decisions. 

  • Amy lee

    Good Example

    This article reminds me of the documentary I watched yesterday that named raise to nowhere. Not all students are interested in the academic route. Parents can send their children to technical institute rather than force them to go to college. After watching that movie, a girl from my discussion group said that she felt unacceptable and surprised at the pecentage of the Americans with bachalor degree. She thinks college education is necessary for everyone. At that time, I didn’t agree with her opinion, but lack the evidence to oppose it. The Singapore model provides a good example to show that not all students need to receive college education. People with less academic knowledge can also find a decent job and get respect from others. Actually, the IET also builds students’ self identity before they get a job.

  • Steve


    OK. This is quite interesting from a number of perspectives. I will just focus on a few. Please bear with me here. 

    I have taught for 13 years. I teach math. It is a tough subject for those whose preparation is weak or who have no intrinsic motivation. 

    A few days ago I was listening to an interview from Insead, an MBA/Ph.D program. One of the presenters gave his opinion on why the US is 5th ranked. The lack of humeracy and literacy in US students compares sharply with the competitive US universities and the students they attract from around the world.

    My point is that, like it or not, there are students worldwide who are not competitive in their high school years. I advocate ending high school at Grade 10 for them and allowing them techinical training in grades 11 and 12. They will become more competitive over time.

    The US refuses to do this, partly using NCLB as an excuse. I can give Denver Public Schools as an example. Any proposed school, be it district run or charter school run, must provide a way for students to pass standardized tests at anacceptable level, set by state and district standards. The students I referred to earlier,those who are not competitive in high school, could be provided an alternative path for career and graduation. But Denver refuses to authorize these schools, primarily because the academic focus is GED (General Equivalency Degree) and career tech, not ACT/SAT or other standardized tests. It is so sad that public schools in the US refuse to admit that many of its students need alternative pathways. This is seriously hurting these studnets’ career and post secondary readiness. 


  • Graeme


    This is a great article on how education and creating jobs are linked together.

    The Singapore sysytem is always leading the way showing the region and the world that the only future for kids is a very good education.

    Times have moved where in the past we had education but by luck or chance we fell into the right job.