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The Bottom Line Why Do Singapore Students Outperform the Rest of the World?

The United States educational achievement of its students ranks 26th overall according to 2020 data from World Population Review.1 Research reveals that the most significant influence on student academic achievement within the school setting is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.2 If teachers are the most significant influence on academic growth, a look at the country’s teaching force which ranks number one in education worldwide should shed light on how the U.S. can move its students up in international comparisons.

The Worldwide Education Leader

Singapore has the top overall student achievement in math, science, and language arts. Unless Singapore’s children are born significantly smarter than American children (which they are not), they must be doing something dramatically different in preparing their teachers. As Chairman of the American Center for Transforming Education, I traveled to Singapore to study their teacher preparation program, managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and implemented by the National Institute of Education (NIE). The trip was enlightening.

Contrasting Teacher Preparation Approaches

The United States System

The U.S. requires all teachers to attend an education school, pass a prescribed series of courses, and, upon graduation, the student obtains “certification” to teach. Though the spectrum of quality between the best and the worst is substantial, overall, education schools have the lowest standard of entry of any college on any campus. Education schools, of which our country has over 1,400, are “cash cows” for most universities.

In most cases, all that is required for admission is a high school diploma and money for tuition. Generally, there is no pruning once a student is admitted — admission eventually equates to graduation, upon which “certification” is received. Despite the easy certification process, there remains a shortage of certified teachers, which results in many classrooms being staffed by para-educators or teachers in the process of gaining certification through alternative means. The end result is that many teachers, certified or not, do not have the talent and training necessary to be effective in the classroom.

The Singapore System

The system in Singapore presents a significant contrast. The NIE, the entity established to prepare teachers, principals, and superintendents for their school system, has established a stringent process for educators’ selection and training. Only one in twelve candidates who apply to become teachers becomes one.

The most common path is first to earn a Bachelor’s degree from a recognized university. To qualify for consideration, the college graduate must have graduated in the top third of his or her class. Candidates wanting to teach in a secondary school must have majored in the subject they wish to teach. Elementary school teaching candidates must have majored in either English, math, or a foreign language.

Candidates who meet the above criteria are then called into an interview. The four-educator interview panel delves into why candidates want to become teachers, their teaching aptitude, communication skills, and personal demeanor. An integral part of the interview is a series of role-plays and essay writing concerning how the candidate would approach specific classroom situations. Eighty percent of the students interviewed are rejected!

Candidates who advance past the interview are then hired by the MOE and assigned to a classroom and mentor for three to six months. In other words, Singapore pays qualified candidates to become a teacher. Forty percent of those selected to receive the classroom experience fail in meeting standards and are removed from the program. The remaining candidates are then required to attend a 16-month coursework program at the NIE, earning a Postgraduate Diploma in Education. Candidates earn $3,600-$5,000 a month while in the program. Very few students fail or leave the program once selected. Upon completing the NIE coursework, candidates are assigned to the same school where they student-taught and begin their teaching career.

The second route to becoming a teacher in Singapore is similar in length and rigor. The student applies for the interview based on being in the top 30 percent of his or her 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, culminating in a bachelor’s in education degree. A small percentage of students achieve teaching status via this route.  

Every year about 1,000 people become teachers in a city with approximately five million people.

Teacher Compensation & Evaluation

While the U.S. has a fixed salary schedule for entering teachers, the beginning teacher salaries in Singapore are based on the teacher’s previous earning levels — no one takes a pay cut to become a teacher. The lowest salary is between $5,000-6,000 a month in Singapore dollars (a Singapore dollar averages 0.73 U.S. 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 per 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. 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.

Principal & Superintendent Selection

There is a similar contrast between how the U.S. and Singapore select and train principals and superintendents. In the U.S., the requirements to become a principal are minimal. A candidate must have been a teacher for two to three years and pay tuition to attend a principal certification program at an education school. In most education schools, there are no other criteria for admission — teachers do not need to have shown leadership skills, do not need to provide letters of recommendation, and don’t even need to be considered effective teachers. The same practice occurs for the training of superintendent candidates. The only requirements are that the candidate was a principal for two to three years and can pay the required tuition. Both these approaches’ net effect is that the U.S. gets leadership in its K-12 schools by accident, not by design. No high-performing organization could operate with this type of leadership selection and training.

Contrast this with the process of becoming a principal in Singapore, which is by invitation only. Candidates, who have been successful teachers, do not apply but instead are selected for the principal program. Upon selection, candidates attend a full-time 17-week course in leadership and management at the NIE. They are then placed in a leadership practicum at a school, such as a department head or subject matter expert. After two to three years, they could advance to becoming a Vice Principal, at which point they are transferred to another school. If deemed qualified to become a principal after two to three additional years, they are sent back to the NIE for six months to take school leadership courses in their Leaders in Education Program. In Singapore, only ten percent of teachers selected for a leadership position become a principal. Principals who have successfully served four to five years are eligible for promotion to superintendent or NIE administrator.

Not only is Singapore extremely selective in determining who can become a teacher, but they also prioritize having their teachers adhere to a specific set of core values that permeate the entire education system. These values include:

  • Student-centered learning environments
  • Belief that all students can learn
  • Care and concern for every single child
  • Value of diversity
  • Individual teacher identity, belief system, and philosophy
  • Emphasis on how the teacher lives outside of school in the broader community
  • Respect for the teaching profession

Within the Classroom

There is more to the story. Singapore students attend school 200 days a year for six hours per day. This 200-day school year is spread throughout the calendar and is arranged into four terms of ten weeks each. These days add up to more than one additional full month of class time each year for Singapore students compared to their American counterparts. Over the course of a child’s schooling, a Singapore student, upon graduation, will have received more than one full year of education than a typical American student. Additionally, all students in Singapore take a foreign language starting in the first grade. In contrast, U.S. students tend to study a foreign language for two years during high school.

What’s the Cost?

The U.S. spends $700 billion annually on its K-12 education system. Based on the GDP, the U.S. spends 74 percent more, per student, than Singapore, despite lagging far behind in student learning performance. Furthermore, while Singapore spends significantly less per student than the U.S., Singapore has created a culture of prestige and honor for their teachers, as evidenced by the fact that less than one in twelve candidates is selected for the profession. In Singapore, teaching is a “high status” profession.

Although overall education spending is lower, once in the profession, Singapore teachers are well compensated — and their compensation is based on their performance rather than on seniority, as in the U.S. system. Additionally, Singapore teachers are provided training and multiple pathways for promotion. The training includes continued study in curriculum development, assessment writing, and leadership.

Key Takeaways

What can the U.S. learn by studying Singapore’s education system? First, only the best and brightest of their citizens are selected to become teachers. Second, their teachers are well compensated and can increase their compensation based upon their performance. Third, neither seat time in a college nor seniority is considered important — only teaching excellence matters. Fourth, only the most expert practitioners are selected for opportunities for advancement to leadership positions.

At every grade level, every classroom is led by an excellent teacher who is trained to focus on the development of the whole child. Would not American students perform equally well if taught by teachers of comparable quality for 200 days a year?  

1 “Education by Country 2020,” World Population Review, 2020, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/education-by-country.

2 “Understanding Teachers’ Impact on Student Achievement,” RAND Corporation, accessed October 28, 2020, https://www.rand.org/education-and-labor/projects/measuring-teacher-effectiveness/teachers-matter.html.

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