Low-pictureFor many who wonder how Asian countries came to dominate international educational rankings, whole-child development wouldn’t be a first guess. Yet in a landscape of systems widely believed to rely on long hours, intensive tutoring and exhaustive drills, Singapore places a high priority on students’ holistic development – mental, emotional, social, physical, spiritual and aesthetic. This and other details of Singapore’s highly successful school system may have come as a surprise to the hundreds of Houstonians attending Lessons from Singapore, a speaker event featuring Ee-Ling Low of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, presented by Houston A+ Challenge on February 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of this year’sinternational speaker series on public education, sponsored by Chevron. Holistic education is central to the most recent phase of Singapore’s educational strategy, in which it hopes to unleash the creativity of the next generation while ensuring that they are equipped with 21st century skills and values. A corollary to Singapore’s whole-child development is its whole-teacher evaluation: though Singapore does exceptionally well on standardized tests, students’ test scores are not considered in evaluations of teachers’ effectiveness.  Instead, school leaders consider teachers’ contributions to children’s overall development as well as teachers’ leadership qualities and contributions to the community and profession. Learning Through Literacy Though Singapore students’ prowess in math and science is especially lauded – math was the featured subject on the 2012 PISA test that vaulted Singapore to the number two spot in international rankings – Low credited the country’s educational success to a strong emphasis on language and literacy. Language has played an important strategic role in the country’s formation. The island’s population is majority Chinese with sizeable Indian and Malay minorities; at the time of Singapore’s establishment as an independent nation, the country’s decision to make English its common language was motivated by a need to establish cultural unity among its diverse populations.  Today, the vast majority of Singapore’s people are bilingual.  Though the primary instructional and business language is English, fewer than 35% of Singaporeans speak English as a primary language at home. Literacy’s starring role in national education is strengthened by educators’ core belief that language is the medium through which all learning flows.  That’s why mastery of English grammar and usage, as demonstrated on a rigorous exam frequently failed even by native speakers, is required before any teacher can enter a classroom. One Country + One System = One Vision Low cited absolute fidelity to implementation of its education vision and strategy as the strongest lever of Singapore’s success.  With a population of just 5,400,000, somewhere between the populations of New York City and Los Angeles, it seems natural that a single vision could take hold – yet no U.S. urban area can match Singapore’s school system in simplicity and unity. Singapore’s schools enroll just under 511,000 students, more than twice the size of Houston ISD but well under half the enrollment across the Houston area.  But while Houston-area schools are managed or influenced by dozens of national, state, regional, county and district agencies with often competing priorities, and staffed via hundreds of teacher preparation programs that vary wildly in content and quality, Singapore’s single Ministry of Education and Institute of Education are able to put the small nation’s vision into practice. This tight central authority is among the country’s best-known traits.  In a country perhaps best known for its steep criminal consequences and where most of the population lives in government-managed apartments, it’s no surprise that schools are designed to respond to policy changes with swift, expert, and comprehensive pivots. Strong Teachers for a Strong Nation In addition to a high-level view of Singapore’s overall public schooling strategy, Low provided an insider’s look into the system that selects, trains and develops all of Singapore’s educators. As in many high-performing education systems, high respect and pay for teachers in Singapore attracts strong candidates to the Institute of Education, where a rigorous selection process that includes an interview with current school leaders ensures candidates have both the aptitude and personality to be effective teachers. Once selected, a teacher’s education is free – in fact, future educators are paid a salary during their years of training – but in return, they are bonded to serve Singapore’s schools for a number of years.  If they leave the profession early, they are obligated to repay the bond with interest – a sum that can amount to half a million dollars or more. Still, it is common for Singapore’s teachers to stay well beyond the durations of their bond.  Three directions of professional advancement opportunities – school management, curriculum specialties, and in-class teacher leadership – ensure that educators are able to grow their skills, rank and salary, but does not pull every ambitious and talented teacher from the classroom. Careful cultivation of teachers’ professional identity is a unique feature of Singapore’s training and development strategy. Teachers are coached to understand their role as nation-builders and highly trained professionals.  Among their evaluation criteria are their contributions to the field of education and to the school community, including their service as stewards and mentors to the next generation of teachers. In addition to enhancing teachers’ performance, research suggests, teachers who strongly identify with the profession and its corps are more likely to stay – a crucial consideration for a country that invests so much in its teachers. Beyond Thinking Schools, Learning Nation From its spot at the top of the international rankings, Singapore continues to strengthen its educational system and vision.  The country strives for schools that are more equal, more able to educate each students to his or her full potential, and to stay globally relevant and competitive. Ultimately, Singapore strives to unleash the creativity and potential for innovation among its people – the small island’s only natural resource – through its increasing focus on whole-child education.  And like many high-performing countries, the nation continues to find lessons in the U.S. “Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks,” Low said of her recent visit to Seattle – “three globally-known companies in one small city.  How do we achieve this in Singapore?” Houston A+ Challenge’s Speaker Series on Public Education is sponsored by Chevron.   More Ee-Ling Low

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