Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Getting the recipe right

Aug 25, 2009

By Kathryn Baron

WHAT are the ingredients of a successful school system? Getting the recipe right is important. In presenting his education agenda, United States President Barack Obama says: 'The future belongs to the nation that best educates its people.'

For now, educators suggest, that distinction lies half a world away from Washington - in Singapore.

On a hot, humid morning in this small island nation, US education official Mike Smith enters a crowded Grade Three (Primary Three) classroom. There's no air conditioner, just open windows and some fans. The entire class of 36 nine-year-olds stands and greets him politely.

Mr Smith is senior counsellor to the US Secretary of Education. The class is at East View Primary School in a low-income, densely populated neighbourhood of Singapore.

Mr Smith is struck by the number of students and tells Principal Veronica Tay: 'In the US, you would never see a class this large!' She assures him it's actually smaller than the typical class at the school.

Despite the number and the neighbourhood, East View is up for a national excellence award. Singapore itself is well-known for turning out students who outscore those in most other countries in international science and mathematics tests. That is what brought Mr Smith here - along with education officials from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Canada and Sweden. They all want to know one thing: What makes Singapore's education system work so well?

Make that two things: How does Singapore do it, and can we do it, too?

Singapore's Minister of Education Ng Eng Hen says: 'The nuts and bolts of a good educational system are really quite simple, and quite straightforward and some would say it's a 'no-brainer'.'

Dr Ng isn't being glib. He says even though everyone knows a good education system when they see one, jumping the hurdles to create it takes stamina and support. So he organised a first-ever International Education Roundtable to start talking strategy.

'When you're thinking of policies and directions for the ministries, sometimes we are greatly in need of sounding boards,' he explains. 'How do you do this right? Which is the direction you take? What resources are necessary?'

The education officials at the forum quickly found common ground in discussions about recruiting and keeping good teachers, improving leadership training for principals, and using technology creatively and effectively towards the goal of improving student achievement.

That's one area where Singapore shines. The visitors were especially awed by a nursing class at the Institute of Technical Education, where students practised on a computerised dummy that responded like a real person. Sweden's Education Minister said she'd like vocational schools in her country to include this technology.

Mr Smith was struck by Singapore's ability to keep reforms centred on the real goals of education.

'If you have serious, steady leadership, if you're focused on students' well-being, on students' achievement, and you pay real attention to that, you'll get a system that's continuously improving,' he noted. 'That's very important and just needs to happen more often in the US; we need to create those conditions under which it can happen.'

That said, he observed that reform is a lot simpler to enact in Singapore. One political party has ruled the island nation for half a century. On the one hand, that's led to strong central control; on the other, it has protected education policies from the volatility of government change.

Mr Dave Hancock, the education minister of Alberta, Canada, complained that in his country, politics, rather than political leadership, is a major impediment to thoughtful reform. 'We get elected to think big picture and long term, but our 'report cards' are often based on how many potholes are filled. That's the politics that we need to keep out of the system.'

Singapore is also a lot smaller than most countries. The entire population is 4.5 million. That's two million fewer than the number of public school students in the state of California alone.

The layers of education bureaucracy in the US are also oversized. Mr Smith says you can't just transfer reform from one country to another. 'If we borrow ideas from Singapore, we need to understand that we're borrowing them into a different system and a different way of doing business, so they may not be able to be picked up easily and moved.'

The American education official suggests it would be easy to dismiss Singapore because of its size, and the different political, economic and social structures.

Still, he says, there is a lesson for the US. Serious school reform has to be focused on what will improve student achievement and well-being. That's a goal that crosses all borders.

This article first appeared in Voice of America's website, voanews.com

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