What We Can Learn From Singapore

In the past several decades, Singapore has rapidly climbed up the international education totem pole. According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Singapore’s schools have developed a reputation for cultivating strong school leaders, providing quality ongoing professional development, and exploring innovative models to influence modern schools. Many educators, including David Hogan, Honorary Professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, have studied Singapore’s education system and what they are doing to bolster students’ intellect. Some of the methods they use in the classroom are substantially different from the way in which other countries teach their kids. So, the million-dollar question is: what are some of the strengths of Singapore’s curriculum that helps it perform so well and how can we ensure that kids in America—at Collegiate Academies and beyond—are benefiting from these lessons?

Singapore’s Curriculum

Singapore’s education system is a product of its historical, institutional, and cultural influences. All of their schools use a national curriculum that focuses primarily on nurturing their kids to equip them with necessary core skills. As a result of these efforts, Singapore’s student academic results have been among the highest in the world: in 2009, they scored fifth in reading, second in mathematics, and fourth in science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. This is especially impressive given that, in 1965, when Singapore first became independent, most of its population of two million people were illiterate.

As David Hogan writes in The Conversation, Singapore’s curriculum is student-centered, but it is also highly scripted and teacher driven. It focuses on activities involving factual and procedural knowledge and prepares students for exams by relying heavily on textbooks, worksheets, work examples, and drill and practice. Singapore has strong and clear expectations for literacy and numeracy mastery for all students. Teachers monitor students’ learning and provide lots of feedback, by focusing on whether students truly know the subject matter—rather than if they just understand a portion of it.

Continued Improvement

Though Singapore has improved tremendously over the last few years, as a nation they continue to focus on how they can improve their education system in several areas, like recognizing that students have different starting points from their peers when they begin school. Teachers work with students with a wide range of disadvantages and work to ensure that they don’t fall between the cracks. They provide primary school students that have trouble understanding the subject matter with individualized attention to give them a stable grounding in literacy and numeracy.

Singapore’s intensive focus on teachers also sets the country apart from others. According to the Asia Society, Singapore has faith in their education system as well as in the ability of their teachers. They recruit their teachers from a strong pool of highly-qualified graduates, all with multiple degrees. Master teachers from teaching institutes mentor every new teacher for several years as they receive their training on the Singapore curriculum at the country’s National Institute of Education.

Collegiate Academies: Always Growing

Like Singapore, Collegiate Academies schools, including Sci Academy, my alma mater, focus on high expectations for both students and teachers. They give regular feedback to help students and teachers grow. Collegiate Academies recognizes that teacher quality is the strongest predictor of student success. In many ways its system is parallel to that of Singapore’s, giving students lots of individualized attention, building strong high school leaders, and promoting a student-centered focus. Collegiate Academies is also focused on how they can continue to grow and learn from other education systems. Specifically, like Singapore’s focus on teacher quality, teacher development and training is a focus area for Collegiate Academies this year. “We are investing more in teachers this year to ensure that they become experts in what they are teaching. We make sure that the teachers understand the material, and we provide opportunities for them to enhance their understanding,” said Ben Marcovitz, Founder of Sci Academy and CEO of Collegiate Academies. “[Teachers] get lesson plans to teach the lesson as best as possible. We also created a database that not only analyzes results, but also gives teachers a better understanding of the course they are teaching. We’ve made tests more challenging to measure real, true understanding,” he adds.

As a student at Sci Academy, I witnessed Sci’s challenging curriculum and dedicated teachers firsthand. The school sparked my enthusiasm for newfound knowledge and helped me become fluent in the English language, which became my salvation from illiteracy. The rapid academic progress I was able to make at Sci Academy reminds me of Singapore’s incredible growth over the past forty years. I learned from the staff about college and how determined I had to be to succeed. They spoke responsibly and honestly about their exhilarating experiences, and helped to prepare me for my time in college. One of the things that I have always admired about Sci Academy and its teachers is how they continue to focus on increasing the rigor of their classes, while also ensuring that students are learning and understanding the material. They focus on how to engage students in the subject and not just prepare them for taking the test.

Most of my peers from Sci Academy, not surprisingly, have been accepted into prestigious schools, such as Wesleyan, LSU, Dillard, Swarthmore, Amherst, Xavier, and Tulane, and are doing well. As for me, I am now a junior at Bard College on a full-ride scholarship and thriving in all of my classes. Like Sci Academy, Singapore gives students individual attention and nurtures them to reach their highest potential, while also focusing on how they can continue to get better. I hope that more students—at Collegiate Academies, in the US, and in the world—can have this same experience. Collegiate Academies also believes that this can be achieved, and they are working hard to make it happen.

Troy Simon, a 2012 graduate of Sci Academy, is a junior at Bard College. At Bard, he serves as a Bard College Campus Campaign Coordinator for Teach For America and writes for the Bard Free Press biweekly. During his college career, he has held internships with Students for Education Reform and TBWA\Chiat\Day an advertising agency. Recently, he was a participant in the New York Times’ “Schools for Tomorrow” event, and spoke on a panel with Laurene Powell Jobs, Carlos Watson, and David Leonhardt.

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