In search of educational excellence: Three lessons from Singapore

When American educators want to learn from the success stories of other nations, they often choose either Finland or Singapore. Known for its strategic approach to education, Singapore is a case study in educational excellence. As I accompanied the first Holdsworth Center cohort from Texas around Singapore, it soon became obvious that there’s a lot we can all learn from this tiny island-nation.

Lesson #1: Value Teachers, Groom Leaders & Manage Talent Strategically

At the National Institute of Education (NIE), the institution that trains all teachers and principals on the island, one of the presenters shared with us results of national poll in which school children were asked what profession they aspired to. The top choice was “doctor,” followed closely by “teacher.” If America could make teaching a desirable, high status profession like Singapore has done, imagine how we could revolutionize our education system?

One of the most impressive aspects of Singapore’s approach to talent management is the way they develop and retain great teachers. Everyone in the education system begins as a teacher, but early on in their careers they are mentored and developed in different ways based on their strengths. Some teachers are identified as future leaders and enrolled in a special “Leaders in Education (LEP) program,” which culminates with an innovative capstone project.

Other teachers who show tremendous strength in the classroom are supported and developed to become “master teachers,” who will eventually lead and mentor new teachers in the system. Interestingly, master teachers and principals are treated with the same status, and they get the same pay and benefits. Clearly, this is a system that values not just educational leadership but also the teaching profession.

In a lively discussion, the Holdsworth superintendents touched upon multiple takeaways from Singapore’s approach. How can we use the concept of “master teachers” to better develop and reward great teachers so they don’t stagnate or feel devalued? How can we use ideas from Singapore’s Leaders in Education Program (LEP) to redesign the way we identify and develop principals and administrators? And how can we learn from Singapore’s innovative system of compensating teachers, where teachers are given bonuses in the years where they are most likely to leave or most likely to need extra money, such as marriage or the birth of a child, to retain teachers? 

Lesson #2: Invest Heavily in Technical and Vocational Education for all students

In Singapore, economic needs drive all major educational initiatives. In the nineties, national leaders realized they needed a highly skilled technical workforce in order to lure companies to Singapore. In response, they created the Institute of Technical Education, otherwise known as the ITE, which has four large campuses across the island. The ITE aims to transform the opportunities available to the bottom 25 percent of students in schools across Singapore. Instead of viewing these students as “academic failures,” they are viewed as “experiential learners” who can provide Singapore with the vocational and technical expertise that companies and businesses desperately need. By training these students in a wide range of fields – from hydraulics to electrical installation, from smart phone servicing to baking and hairstyling – the ITE helps them become highly skilled and immediately employable.

Lesson #3: Change the Narrative and Build the Nation

Walking around the ITE campus, it was hard to miss the inspiring signs signaling that this institute was a “global center for creativity” and that students should be proud to attend the ITE.

One of Singapore’s greatest strengths is the way they use language and media to create a positive and powerful narrative around education. Across the island, educational institutions and the Ministry of Education have worked together to change the perception of vocational education and motivate students and teachers.

Additionally, in Singapore teachers are seen as “nation builders,” and the media provides numerous stories of teachers who are positively shaping the next generation. Imagine if we could begin to change the narrative around education in the US? Imagine if instead of constantly demoralizing teachers and parents with a never-ending discussion of “failing systems” and “low performing students and teachers,” we could use language and media to inspire educators and communities alike?

Taking It Back to Texas

On their last day in Singapore, the Holdsworth cohort reflected on all they had seen and experienced and put together inspiring presentations about how they could take this learning back to their districts in Texas.

As I listened to the presentations, I could see how the trip had expanded each person’s sense of possibility and reinforced their desire to achieve educational excellence in their own districts.

I left feeling hopeful and inspired, knowing for certain that the kids in Texas would benefit.