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Singapore & Shanghai

In 2011, in partnership with the Asia Society, NPESF led a delegation of U.S. education leaders to Singapore and Shanghai, China, to explore and learn from their high-performing education systems. Key takeaways from the trip include:

  • Singapore’s human capital system: Perhaps the most striking takeaway from Singapore was the design of the human capital system for teachers and school leaders. The system starts with a well-developed vision and framework for educating 21st century teachers. In the early days, when education levels were low, there was a low threshold for entering the teaching profession. Over time, Singapore aligned starting salaries to those of other college graduates of similar preparation and intellectual prowess (e.g. engineers); raised the bar of selectivity for applicants to its school of education; provided in-depth teacher education; established a set of career paths for teachers; and used a variety of bully pulpits to promote recognition of the value of teaching to the nation. The career paths are rooted in significant professional development (100 hours per year) and premised on improving performance, as measured by serious, multifaceted evaluations. Highly accomplished teachers can now earn as much as a principal. Singapore has also developed a system for growing the pipeline of school leaders through early identification, in-depth preparation and the nurturing of talent. This is a simple but powerful formula that the US should find ways to emulate.

  • Shanghai’s approach to school turnaround: Shanghai's approach to turning around schools is based on pairing high-performing schools with low-performing ones and funding to the good school to help improve its pair. With this system, specific methods for improvement include: asking the principals of high-performing schools to also manage a low-performing school; creating clusters of high- and lower-performing schools where lead teachers participate in ‘teaching studios” across schools; and “empowered management” in which a high-performing school and a lower performing school sign a contract with the Shanghai Education Commission to raise the lower achieving school’s performance. If the data at the end of two years are positive, the contract can be extended another two years. So far Shanghai has turned around 60 schools with this approach. Could this turnaround model be adapted for the US context? Certainly, the logic of giving turnaround resources to school leaders who have proven track records makes a lot of sense.

  • Vision and leadership: Both the Singapore and Shanghai systems have been driven by a long-term vision about the importance of human resources to their societies, and consistent movement over time towards clear and ever-higher educational goals. In these systems, the organizational culture promotes collective and individual responsibility, teamwork, transparency, and professionalism among teachers, principals and policymakers. There is a high degree of clarity and fidelity between policy, implementation and practice. The question is: how the U.S. can develop the consensus and capacity for sustaining a top-tier public education system in the context of multi-layered governance, rapid-fire elections, and fractured political debates? Can philanthropy play a role in shaping and sustaining the vision and momentum for reform through short-term political cycles?

  • Close linkage between education and economic development: In Singapore in particular, the way in which education has been tied to economic progress and the creation of jobs has been very impressive. It has led to the development of very high-quality math and science education in their schools and technical education that is among the best in the world. The Institute for Technical Education (ITE) is an impressive example of transforming vocational and technical education to attract new industries and provide lower performing students with respect and marketable skills. Many ITE programs focus on training for service industries as well. Whereas in the U.S., the bottom 25% of students drop out of high school, in Singapore 90% of the bottom 25% graduate from ITE and have jobs. The U.S. needs to find ways to close the gap between the skills that employers need and the output of the education system and to re-imagine and reposition technical education for the new jobs of the 21st century.

  • Alignment and capacity: In both of these systems, all the critical elements – curriculum, assessment, teacher training and school development – are aligned towards common goals. Both systems have strong central policy frameworks as well as mechanisms for encouraging local school innovation and building capacity at the school level. How can the U.S, with its much more decentralized system, develop this kind of capacity and coherence? How can it go from having not just some excellent schools but excellent systems of schools? The Common Core Standards are a starting point for greater alignment. Building the capacity of state education agencies to create coherence is also essential. How can the federal education role encourage alignment and coherence but also allow flexibility for continuous learning rather than mere adherence to the letter of the law?

  • International benchmarking and continuous improvement: Singapore and Shanghai have learned a great deal about the best aspects of education from around the world (including the U.S.) and have used this process as part of the continuous improvement of their own education, sending not just policymakers but also principals and teachers to study international best practices. Most American educators, however, know little about the educational successes of other countries. In a globalized world, where the relevant standards are not those of the city or state next door but of the world’s highest performing countries, this needs to change. Some steps that have begun include the US Department of Education’s two International Summits on the Teaching Profession, the international delegations sponsored by the National Public Education Support Fund, and the Asia Society’s new Global Cities Education Network that will bring together Asian and North American cities around issues of equity and 21st century skills. Some recommendations for connecting educational benchmarking efforts directly to school reform in the U.S. include sending teams from states to high-performing systems, and providing PISA-like assessments for states, schools, districts and charter networks.