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A Portrait of Singapore's Education System


I know that you’ve read a lot of accounts, in EdWeek’s pages and elsewhere, of Singapore’s prowess in math and science, not to mention vocational education. But this profile of Singapore's education system in the Miami Herald is definitely worth the time. It's written by Andres Oppenheimer, best known for his coverage of Latin America. His story is a reminder (for journalists as well as education policy types) of the power of a salient detail.

Singapore’s obsession with education “even shows up on its dollar bills,” the author notes. “While U.S. and Latin American currencies portray images of national independence heroes, Singapore's 2-dollar bill—the most widely circulated since there is no smaller denomination —shows students in a classroom listening to a professor, with a university in the background. Underneath, there is just one word, 'Education.'''

Later, the author makes this observation about the heavy pressure in Singapore for students to succeed in education (though whether this feature is something countries should emulate is a matter of opinion): “U.S. expatriates here like to say that while America is a guilt-driven society, Singapore is a shame-driven society: Parents here dread others seeing their children doing poorly in school.”


While the culture is important, that is only one piece of the puzzle. If the culture demands good educations, then how they get that education depends on what curricula are used. You cannot leave that out of any discussion of Singapore and yet the author of the Miami Herald piece relies almost exclusively on the argument of "it's the culture, stupid".

The methods and texts used to teach math have been written about extensively; there is a reason why students in Singapore excel in math. They are taught well. That the culture produces good teaching and good texts is important, but so is the means. Many homeschooling parents in the US have purchased the Singapore math books and have had good success.

And the point is....?

Curriculum doesn't matter?

Look at the 4th grade NAEP math test results and explain why it's culture that causes the failure.

Elementary schools that specialize in robotics? Universities as portals rather than places? Like it. Education as national defense? Love it! Tracking - whatever they call it - not so much. There's benefit to ability grouping, but not in deciding a child's future for them.

Culture and curriculum help, but it's the teacher that makes it happen. Exceptional teachers can reach their students regardless of culture and curriculum - those pieces just make the teacher's job easier.

That said, I think the Singapore Math curriculum is exceptional.

As an obedient Singapore citizen, I too agree that there is obsession in our education system.

I believe that we inherit the obsession from Asian culture, especially the Chinese culture. All other countries with the same Chinese root, from Japan, Korea to Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong are equally obsessed. The only difference among the countries is the "interference" by the Governments. The "interference" by Singapore Government is fairly highly, which is reflected in the percentage annual budget on education. The percentage annual budget for the case of China is fairly low, around 2% to 3%, I think.

What Singapore need is not to dilute the investment on education but to redefine education in a non-Chinese, non-oriental perspective. There are serious efforts from institutions and individuals to redefine the educational perspective. However, the effort is limited in momentum, as long as the bureaucrats do not recognize or to be part of it. Many of the bureaucrats in Singapore are beneficiaries of the education system and they are not ready for the change in perspective.

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