Instructors inside a tanker ship learning center explain teaching practices. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

SINGAPORE — Belinda Charles has the résumé of an accomplished lifelong educator: former principal of two secondary schools and a junior college, and before that, vice principal of another junior college.

She retired at age 60, but was coaxed back into Singapore’s national public education system to serve as the dean of  the country’s Academy of Principals, which works in partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Institute of Education (NIE).

The academy, formed in 2002,  works on reform initiatives, continuing education programs, including foreign study, for principals, research projects and other investments that keep principals abreast of the latest practices nationally and abroad, and closely connected as a cohesive group of educators.

Belinda Charles, dean of Singapore's Academy of Principals.
Belinda Charles, dean of Singapore’s Academy of Principals. Credit: Chris Coxon

For all of Charles’ accomplishments as an educator and recognized national leader, she remains a good teacher, in this instance addressing a classroom of visiting Texas educators. Charles explained the complexities of Singapore’s education system and practices with clarity, confidence, and humor. Her knack for listening and responding to questions with insight are hallmarks of the good teacher.

The quality of teachers in Singapore is reflected in the high international rankings achieved by its students. Teachers occupy a position of respect in Singaporean society. Aspiring teachers are subject to a rigorous selection process, and those who make the cut undergo thorough preparation for teaching content and values to students and demonstrating leadership in the classroom. Every teacher benefits from career-long continuing education and a system of compensation that rewards dedication, performance and longevity.

“A senior teacher who is head of department can make as much as a school principal,” Charles told a group of visitors from Texas, “and a principal can make as much as an engineer in Singapore. The quality of teachers determines the quality of education.”

It was a statement we heard more than once during our visit.

The Singapore Teacher Education Partnership model is known as the PPP (policies, practices, preparation) model. Many more individuals apply to become teachers than are selected in Singapore, according to Charles, who said that kind of careful selection and advance training leads to fewer cases of underperforming teachers who are difficult to remove. Annual reviews include goal-setting. Finally, good teaching is rewarded with more than rhetoric.

The Teacher Education 21 model is the latest national initiative to fine tune the practices put into place in recent years. Listening to different presenters talk about the country’s constant search for new and better ways to elevate education outcomes left Texas visitors impressed with the constant focus on a subject in ways that seldom enter the national conversation in the United States.

Educate Texas delegates listen to a Singaporean teacher discuss hands-on workforce development alongside a Boeing Dreamliner commercial aircraft learning center.
Educate Texas delegates listen to a Singaporean teacher discuss hands-on workforce development alongside a Boeing Dreamliner commercial aircraft learning center. Credit: Robert Rivard/RivardReport

The subject of public education hardly rated a mention among presidential candidates in either the primary election campaigns or the general election campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Broadcast media personalities didn’t focus on the issue at candidate debates.

I’ve known successful teachers in Texas public schools who spend years in the classroom and still make only 20% more than they earned in their first years, and I’ve known school administrators who left the classroom only because they needed to earn a higher salary. Singapore’s system assures that teacher salaries grow with experience, and that no one has to leave teaching for a better paycheck in the front office.

Austin-based Educate Texas helped organize and lead the 37 public school educators and community leaders on the learning mission to Singapore last October in partnership with Kate Rogers, a vice president at H-E-B and acting vice president and director of the newly formed Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership. Educate Texas is a public-private partnership whose goal is “strengthening the public education system so that every Texas student is prepared for success in school, in the workforce, and in life.”

I was one of four journalists on the trip, and decided to wait and report on the experience until the Texas Legislature was in session and public school funding once again became a topic of debate in the wake of the Texas Supreme Court ruling on school financing last May.

The Texas delegation met with Ministry of Education officials, who oversee public and higher education, and leaders at the National Institute for Education, the nation’s teacher preparation and professional development organization. Site visits to city schools, colleges, and programs across the country filled out the intense five-day visit. While we met with various ministry and education officials, Charles left one of the most lasting impressions.

The Educate Texas delegation at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
The Educate Texas delegation at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Credit: Juliana Tan/Singapore

Singapore’s unique status as an island city-state with a population of 5.7 million governed by a one-party controlled government make it a microcosm where enacting policies and practices is far more linear than in the United States, where education policy is left largely in the hands of state legislators  and training, funding, and priorities vary state to state. Educators  in Texas, for example, are hostage to partisan politics in determining education priorities and funding.

Republicans, who control virtually all aspects of state government in Texas, focus on accountability and favor reduced taxes. Many legislators are critical of the independent school district model, and favor public charters, vouchers, and other methods that represent a challenge to the traditional public school model. Democrats, who have not held elected statewide office since 1994, defend the traditional public school model and focus more on the need for greater funding in a state that ranks near the bottom 10% for per capita spending.

Neither side has found common ground to enact real reforms in either education funding or practices that markedly improve outcomes. The result is a state where far too many of the five million students fail to graduate or to finish high school prepared for college.

Most experts dismiss the state’s official dropout rate of 6% and cite the attrition rate – how many incoming freshman in a four-year class do not graduate with their peers. That number is reported to be closer to one in four.

Singapore had its own serious dropout problem in the 1960s and 1970s after it won independence from Great Britain in 1965. Today its non-graduation rate is less than 1%, according to Charles, and no students are held back in any given year. Instead, slow-learning students are streamed into special programs that allow them to develop the basic reading and math skills necessary to continue on in school.

Students who are not going to be college-ready are streamed by the 10th grade into programs that will enroll them in one of the country’s polytechnic institutes, the workforce development equivalents of community colleges. They differ, however, in fundamental ways. The campuses are carefully designed with appealing architecture, open learning spaces, high investment in hands-on learning environments, and even landscape architecture and public art works to make for a more tranquil and welcoming environment.

One polytechnic campus the Texas delegation visited included a Boeing Dreamliner commercial aircraft simulator, and for shipping, a learning laboratory that resembled the inner workings of a major commercial vessel.

Singaporean students passing a retail center that is part of the community college campus. Even the store names convey shared values.
Singaporean students passing a retail center that is part of the community college campus. Even the store names convey shared values. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

Government and education leaders work closely together to anticipate Singapore’s job creation and skilled worker demand, and closely link student development to those industries where qualified graduates will find good jobs. In Singapore that means technology, banking and international finance, value-added manufacturing and exports, and shipping and transportation.

Singapore recognized early on that a global economy would require skilled workers able to thrive beyond the small island-state known as the Tiny Red Dot, so English is the dominant shared language in a society that is predominantly Chinese, followed by Malaysians and Indians. Education leaders have the ability to rapidly adopt in response to changing market demand.

“It’s hard to compare Texas, one of 50 states, and its education system to that of Singapore, a one-party democracy,” I commented in one exchange with Education Ministry officials.

“Hmm, a one-party democracy,” one official mused. “Are you talking about Singapore or are you talking about Texas?”

What’s most encouraging for Texas educators is that Singapore’s highly ranked education system is a product of a relatively short time span. How the country and its charismatic and long-serving prime minister Lee Kuan Yew conceived and built the modern nation by focusing on the development of human capital is examined in a new book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Fernando M. Reimers and Connie K. Chung, published by the Harvard Education Press last year.

The book explores education in six nations, including Singapore and the United States. The chapter on Singapore was authored by Oon-Seng Tan and Ec-Ling Low, professors who hold senior positions with the country’s National Institute of Education.

Singapore embarked on what proved to be a four-phase development of its education system, which were outlined by Charles and others during our stay and presented in more depth in the book.

The Survival-Driven Phase (1965-1979)

Newly independent Singapore focused on survival and building an economy in a country with no natural resources, and high level of unemployment among the unskilled labor force. The initial focus was on building basic literacy and math skills, and getting more of the general population to the level of high school graduation. A massive school construction campaign was launched and officials set about training teachers.

Efficiency-Driven Phrase (1979-1996)

Reducing the high dropout rate continued to be a priority, as did improving English proficiency among students to create a common language. Student streaming began in earnest as officials recognized that no single approach or curriculum would work for everyone. A greater focus was put on workforce development programs and linking such training to job creation, particularly in the fast-growing electronics manufacturing sector.

Ability-Driven Phase (1997-2011)

Singapore’s third phase began as the country entered its fourth decade as a sovereign nation, after new leaders supplanted the founders. The advent of globalization signaled the need for more individualized education. The Thinking Schools, Learning Nation initiative was launched with a fundamental overhaul of curriculum and teaching methods. Rote learning and memorization gave way to teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and risk taking.

Values-Driven Phase (2o11-present)

The Texas educators arrived last year in the fifth year of the current phase of education reform that places value and character development at the center of the learning experience, giving a student’s holistic development the same importance as content learning. Students are taught to appreciate Singapore’s diversity as a strength rather than a cause of division, and Confucian concepts of cohesion and harmony are as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago.

Singapore’s ambitious goals could appear on the walls of any Texas public school, although they are considered real-time ambitions there and not simply aspirational mantras: Every school a good school. Every student an engaged learner. Every teacher a caring educator. Every parent a supportive partner.

In Singapore, the successful student graduate is an adaptable self-starter, and comfortable with diversity and taking risks. He or she has acquired critical thinking and communications skills and demonstrates strong character development. The graduate is an engaged citizen prepared to contribute to society and give back.

That seems like the definition of a successful student graduate in Singapore, in Texas, or anywhere.

Sunday: What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

Monday: Singapore: Lew Kuan Yew’s Vision Realized

Tuesday: Singapore: A Meritocracy of Teachers & Principals

Coming Wednesday: Singapore: Where the Future is Now

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.