The National Center for Educational Statistics ranks the United States 25th in academic achievement internationally. If teachers are the greatest influence on academic growth, perhaps a look at the teaching force in Country #1 would shed some light on how we can move our students up in international comparisons. Singapore has the top overall student achievement in math, science, and language arts. Unless Singapore’s children are born much smarter than American children (which they are not) then they must be doing something very different in preparing their teachers. The Chairman of the American Center for Transforming Education actually travelled to Singapore, to hear more about their teacher preparation program from the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Institute of Education (NIE).
In the United States, we require all teachers to attend an education school, take and pass a prescribe series of courses and then, upon graduation, the student obtains “certification” to teach. Admission to such colleges is very easy. In most cases, all a student needs is a high school diploma and money for tuition. There is no limit to the amount of certificates awarded. Despite this, there is a shortage of “certified” teachers which causes many classrooms to be staffed by para-educators or teachers circumventing certification through permanent waivers. With such low requirements many teachers will not have the talent and training necessary to be effective in the classroom.
Contrast this to Singapore. The National Institute of Education is the entity established to prepare teachers, principals, and superintendents for the school system. The NIE has established a stringent process for the selection and training of educators. Only one in twelve candidates who apply to become teachers actually become one.
The most common path is to first get a Bachelor’s degree from a recognized university. In order to qualify for consideration, the graduate has to have graduated in the top third of their graduating class. If a candidate wants to teach in a secondary school, they will have to have majored in the subject they wish to teach. Elementary school teaching candidates will have to have majored in either English, math or a foreign language. Candidates who meet the above criteria are then called into an interview. The interview panel, of four educators, delves in to why the candidate wants to be a teacher, their likely teaching ability and their communication skills and demeanor. An integral part of the interview is a series of role-plays and essays about how to approach specific classroom situations. Eighty percent (80%) of students interviewed are rejected.
Candidates who make it past the interview are then hired by the MOE and assigned to a classroom and mentor for 3-6 months. In other words, Singapore pays qualified candidates to become a teacher. Forty percent (40%) of these selected to have the classroom experience do not succeed in meeting standards and are removed from the program. The remaining candidates are then required to attend a 16 months program of coursework at the NIE, earning a Postgraduate Diploma in Education. Candidates earn $3600-$5000/month while in school. (The salary varies depending on the previous income of the candidate.) Very few students fail or leave the program, once selected. Upon completion of the NIE coursework, candidates are assigned to the same school in which they student taught and begin their teaching career.
The second route to becoming a teacher is similar in length and rigor. A student applies for the interview based on being in the top 30% of their high school or community college class. If the interview is satisfactory, the student is admitted to the NIE for a four-year course of study which culminates in a BA or BS in Education. A small percentage of students achieve teaching status via this route.
Every year about 1000 students become teachers in a city with a population of about 5 million people.
Beginning teacher wages are based on previous earning levels. The lowest salary is between $5,000-6,000 a month in Singapore dollars. There is a promotion ladder for salary increases as teachers take on more leadership roles, which at a master teacher level can generate $18,000-20,000/month in Singapore dollars. Teachers are provided 100 hours of professional development a year, with sponsorships for selected teachers to complete their Master’s or Doctoral degrees in a related area of study as well. All teachers are evaluated annually and given an A, B, C, or D rating. Any teacher given a D rating three years in a row is removed from the teaching profession.
There is equal contrast in how Singapore develops principals and superintendents. In the U.S., the requirements to become a principal are pretty minimal. Basically, a candidate must have been a teacher for 2-3 years and have money for tuition to attend a principal certification program at an education school. In most education schools, there are virtually no other criteria for admission. Teachers do not need to have shown leadership skills, do not need to have letters of recommendation, don’t even need to have been a good teacher. The same thing occurs in our training of superintendent candidates. The only requirement is that the candidate have been a principal for 2-3 years and have the money for tuition. The net effect of both of these approaches is that we get leadership by accident, not by design.
Contrast this with how one becomes a principal in Singapore. It is by invitation only. You must have been a successful teacher. You do not apply. You are selected for the principal program and attend a full-time 17-week course in leadership and management at NIE. You are then placed in a leadership practicum at your school (Subject Head, etc.). After 2-3 years you could become a Vice Principal, at which point you are transferred to another school. After 2-3 additional years, if you are deemed qualified to become a principal, you are sent back to the NIE for 6 months to take courses in school leadership (the Leaders in Education Program). Only 10% of teachers selected for a leadership position actually become a principal. Principals who have successfully served for 4-5 years are eligible for promotions into a Superintendency or to administration at the NIE.
What can we learn as a nation if we look at Singapore’s teaching corps? The best and the brightest teach and are compensated for it. Seat time or seniority do not equal competency or promotion. Expert practitioners are selected for opportunities of advancement and leadership. We do none of those.
There is more to the story. Singapore students attend school for 200 six-hour days, spread throughout the calendar in 4 terms of 10 weeks. This adds more than one full month of class time/year for Singapore students compared to American students, or more than one full year of education upon graduation. Also, all students take a foreign language starting in the first grade.
In addition to Singapore being very selective in determining who can become a teacher, they are also very interested in having their teachers adhere to a specific set of core values that permeate the entire education system. These values include:
• A student-centered environment
• The belief that all students can learn
• Care and concern for every single child
• Appreciation for diversity
• Individual teacher identity, belief system, and philosophy
• An emphasis on how the teacher lives outside of school in the larger community
• Respect for the teaching profession
While Singapore spends far less per student than we do (based on GDP the U.S. spends 74% more per student), Singapore has created a culture of prestige and honor for the one in twelve candidates who become teachers. Once in the profession, teachers are well compensated based on performance and are provided training and multiple pathways for promotion. Training includes continued study in curriculum development, assessment writing, and leadership.
Singapore is intentional and systematic in the development of the adults who spend as many waking hours as families do with its youth. The educational focus is in developing the whole child. The belief is that every child can learn and the result is the highest overall academic student achievement in the world.
My guess is that American students would perform on par with their Singapore counterparts if they were enrolled in schools staffed by a system of teachers equal in caliber for 200 school days a year.