We need Singapore’s school system

“During a recession, every department deals with budget cuts except education. The education budget actually goes up.”

The statement above may read like farce. Budget-makers across the U.S. have dealt with the aftermath of the Great Recession by slashing teachers’ jobs, pitting generations of educators against one another over who should get the axe, and seizing on teachers’ vulnerability to attack their collective bargaining rights.

Yet the statement is true. In Singapore. 

Last week at the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning annual conference in Rockville, Maryland, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Mike Thiruman, president of the Singapore Teachers’ Union. As he discussed the way teachers are valued in Singapore, I watched the jaws of the mostly American audience literally fall open as he said what I quoted above.

In Singapore, he explained, teachers aren’t overloaded. They lead a classroom with students for about 20 hours a week. In America, the average is fifty percent higher at 30 hours, prompting teachers to cite “heavy workload” as the greatest hindrance to effective teaching above anything else, according to NEA data.

Mike spoke with real pride about how teachers in Singapore are able to move within the education system with relative ease. There are different tracks: classroom educator, in-school administrator, curriculum developer, ministry employee, and so on. You can move from track to track and then back again. Singapore wants harness teachers’ talents in a range of ways. In America, it’s incredibly hard and sea changing to move from a classroom position to a different job and then there’s basically no going back again.

There is ONE way to become a teacher in Singapore— a rigorous program in the National Institute of Education (NIE). It’s hard to get into NIE and graduation from the program guarantees gainful employment and a good salary. Most teachers are drawn from the top of their postsecondary classes. In America, the quality of teacher education is profoundly inconsistent given our patchwork of preparation/induction programs and relatively meager professional salaries.

The Singapore Teachers’ Union and the Ministry of Education are very close allies. In fact, before Mike Thiruman was the union president, he taught and then worked… for the government! Can you imagine the Department of Education or a major teachers’ union in the U.S. accepting a leader who had cut his teeth working for the other organization? Mike described a culture of “bottom-up ideas and top-down support.” The Ministry of Education actually seeks out educators’ ideas so that they can provide resources to make those ideas reality.

I’ll have what they’re having, please. At the panel, I asked Barnett Berry, our moderator, if the next slide on his PowerPoint told us how to book flights to Singapore. We need to learn from them. Their system makes sense. As a bonus, classes are in English.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel stateside. Our education reform debate is bogged down with scrutinizing yearly high-stakes tests and arguing over how to arbitrarily design teacher evaluations primarily aimed at pushing people out of the profession. That’s not a recipe for strengthening our kids’ skills in the 21st century global economy. We ought to be racing to implement what’s working in Singapore and Finland— a claiming of teaching and learning as a valued, human-based process.

Singapore teachers’ motto is “Lead. Care. Inspire.” And they have the tools and support to really mean it.

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