The School Day: Singapore

With school starting again here in the United States, I’ve been thinking back to my children’s experiences at the end of the last school year in Finland that we chronicled last June. To get another perspective on what school is like in another country, I asked our colleague here at IEN, Paul Chua, to talk with me a bit about his son’s experiences in 2nd grade in Singapore. We discussed what primary school is like there today and how different it is not only from when he was in 2nd grade (some thirty five years ago or so), but also from when his oldest son was in second grade about ten years ago–before the PERI (Primary Education Review and Implementation) reforms were launched in 2009. As Paul outlined in a previous post, the PERI reforms are designed to prepare Singapore’s students for the future by balancing the acquisition of knowledge with the development of skills and values.

While my children are just starting their third week of school here in New York (see NPR’s “Sounds From the First Day of School”), Paul’s youngest son has just completed his third ten-week term of his second-grade year. The first day of school in Singapore was in early January with breaks of 1-week between terms in March and September, a four-week break in June, and then a six-week break coming up at the end of the school year in November. During the longer breaks, some students go to parks or camps, school related programs or community-run programs, while others stay with their parents or relatives. During these times, some parents will take leaves from work, and many of those families that can, will take the opportunity to travel. (With an emphasis on internationalization in Singapore schools, many primary and secondary schools also organize trips for upper primary students and above to travel abroad during the breaks). Many students will spend part, though not all, of their break completing tutoring programs that run after school during the regular school year, since many of those programs don’t run on the regular school schedule.

Paul’s son attends a public school well known for it’s bilingual English-Chinese program. (Primary school assignment in Singapore involves an application process, in which parents apply to schools of their choice and assignments are based on priorities like having a sibling in the same school, having a parent who attended the school, having a parent who has volunteered at the school and other criteria.) In addition to English and Chinese languages, his weekly schedule includes periods (of roughly 30 minutes or so) for math, physical education, art, music, social studies, health education, Form Teacher Guidance Period (to strengthen socio-emotional competencies of students), character and citizenship education (CCE) and assemblies (often including performances by arts groups). English classes follow a national curriculum, called STELLAR (Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading). It is a “big book approach,” with teachers bringing a big book that the students read together, with a variety of related reading and writing. Math classes also follow a national curriculum, with an emphasis on mathematical problem solving.

Science is taught mainly from 3rd grade on to allow for more attention to language and math in the “formative” years of 1st and 2nd grade, but the PERI reforms have also led to changes in testing and grading meant to provide teachers and schools with more opportunities to emphasize both skills development and holistic development. For example, while 1st grade and 2nd grade for both Paul and his oldest son included mid-year and end-of-the-year examinations, for his youngest son those examinations have been eliminated for the most part and replaced with bite-sized assessments used in class several times a year so as to build confidence and desire to learn. Teachers are also encouraged to provide more constructive comments on the students work throughout the year. Furthermore, report cards that consisted almost solely of numerical marks and grades for each subject, now include descriptions of the students’ growth in cognitive, physical, emotional, social domains, discussion of how the students reflect the schools’ values, and more qualitative comments on the holistic students strengths and areas of need.

In addition, consistent with the aims of the PERI reforms to encourage schools to develop new ways to teach 21st Century Competences, the primary school Paul’s second grader attends has developed a special emphasis on physical education, art and music. The school also emphasizes personal development by providing students with leadership opportunities. For example, Paul’s son acts as a class monitor whose responsibilities include helping to keep the room quiet when there are transitions in between classes (when students sometimes have a chance to play while they wait for their next subject teacher to arrive). Paul’s son has also been a subject monitor for the English and Chinese languages last year, which meant helping his English and Chinese language teacher with tasks like getting supplies, distributing workbooks in the classroom, and returning them to the staff room after class. There is a deliberate school policy to rotate these monitor positions every year so that every child in the class and school has a chance to be a student leader. Besides developing confidence and other leadership qualities, these opportunities are also intended to develop character values such as responsibility and service to the fellow classmates, school mates and progressively to the neighborhood and community.

The school day starts around 7.50 AM with flag-raising, continues with periods of about 30 minutes (including about 30 mins for recess), and ends about 1: 15 PM. The school day for Paul’s son actually starts a little later than normal in Singapore to accommodate major construction at the school.   Similar school construction projects are underway across Singapore to fulfill PERI recommendations that call for schools to provide more space for teaching and learning and to facilitate the transition of “double-session” to “single-session” schools. This recommendation builds upon an earlier policy change in 2005 of reducing class from 40 to 30 in 1st and 2nd grade. When Paul was in school, before the PERI reforms, many schools actually had “double sessions” with one group of students and teachers in school in the morning, with a second shift of students and teachers in the afternoon. While younger students’ like Paul’s son usually go home after school, the change to the single sessions will free up the schools to offer and engage upper primary students in activities that support the development of a wider range of “soft skills” and abilities through participation in co-curricular activities such as various sports and games, uniformed groups and clubs and societies (e.g. girl guides, boy’s brigade, school choirs, chess clubs, art clubs, drama clubs and the like).

Thomas Hatch

Focus on the Philippines

Dr. Vicente Reyes

Dr. Vicente Reyes

Recently, Contributing Editor Paul Chua spoke with Dr. Vicente Reyes on current issues affecting education in the Phillipines. In the following post, Dr. Reyes responds to questions about the current issues in the Philippine education system, about the historical background of these issues, and about the current situation and efforts to address these issues today.

Key issues – Access, bureaucracy, and mismanagement of resources:

In relation to education, the most pertinent issue that faces the Philippines today is access to education. With a population of about 21 million students in basic education (i.e. primary and secondary) (Flores, 2014) the latest figures from the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) as compiled by the World Bank state that for primary school, participation rates hover around 95%, while for secondary school, the participation rates are around 65% (The World Bank., 2014)

Now access to education is a complex issue. At the very crux of the problem are two interrelated issues: (1) a dysfunctional bureaucracy as represented by the DepEd and (2) the mismanagement of resources that are made available to the DepEd.

In terms of bureaucracy, the DepEd is the biggest bureaucracy in the Philippines – its size and coverage greatly hinder effective policy implementation. One particular branch of the DepEd is the Operations Division. There are more than 500,000 people (comprising Division superintendents, District supervisors, School Principals and teachers) under this particular division, spread across 16 different regions (Reyes, 2009). All of these regions and all these half a million people are under the administrative purview of one Undersecretary of Operations assisted by six staff members. What would have been more reasonable would be to devolve the functions of this office, however; due to the historical growth (i.e. unanticipated phenomenal growth) of the DepEd and the unwillingness of some entrenched offices to be devolved, the DepEd continues to be highly-centralised, with an unrealistically lean senior management tasked to handle a diverse and regionally disparate bureaucracy. What results therefore is uneven communication, unresponsive decision-making, and “one-size-fits-all” policies that continue to hamper smooth operations of the bureaucracy. Hence, the continued dysfunction of the DepEd.


In terms of management of resources, the truth is there are resources available for the very real needs of the DepEd. The resources come from the Executive branch of the central government and are funnelled through the DepEd. Another source of funding comes from Local Government Units (LGUs) in the form of Special Education Funds (SEF) that can be disbursed by the Local School Boards (LSBs).  Another really good source is the Development Assistance Funds —pejoratively known currently in the Philippines as “pork barrel” from local and national legislators. However, because of rampant and systemic corruption, the resources that should be going to schools and school children are—unfortunately—diverted by unscrupulous elements into other places.

Historical background:

These issues reflect the troubled genesis of the Philippine education system that continue to haunt current day education in the country. From the centralised Spanish colonial education framework that was skewed towards the illustrados (i.e. a group of Philippine society elites referred to as the ‘enlightened ones’) who totally neglected the educational needs of the Philippine masses and, followed by the American colonial educational system which was plagued by two serious diseases of (i) a highly-politicised American government at the turn of the 20th century that greatly affected the creation of a solid foundation of a political system and (ii) the absence of a Philippine colonial service – again due to the vacillation of a highly politicised America – that compromised the creation and maintenance of a sound Philippine education bureaucracy.

Actually, the US government commissioned Paul Monroe of Teachers College in the 1920s to conduct what is now known as a landmark Educational Survey. The Monroe Educational Survey warned that the current level of resources and expertise could not sustain the education-for-all initiative and also warned against the increasing politicisation of Philippine education. Powerful groups that championed the populist education-for-all (versus the efficient allocation of education) as well as politicians who had felt slighted about the claim that they had interfered in the running of education in the country lambasted the report.  As such, the suggestions contained in the report were never implemented in the Philippines.

The current situation:

The Philippines is a signatory of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which aspires to accomplish the goals of Education For All (EFA) for all young Filipino people by 2015. By this, it means that in the Philippines, politicians, academia, the media, as well as many other stakeholders, have fully embraced the goals of EFA. The reality though is that without addressing the two aforementioned major issues that trouble the DepEd, accomplishing EFA remains a daunting challenge. Current estimates indicate that the Philippines will miss out on the EFA targets for 2015.  In addition, the country has also been described as one of the low performers in relation to the MDG.

Current reform efforts in the Philippines have been devised to try and address the twin issues of a dysfunctional bureaucracy and a flawed resource allocation system for the DepEd and its schools.  The most central of all these is the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA), with one of the pillars of BESRA being the controversial K-12 programme. K-12 has been implemented starting 2013 — on paper, the initiative sounds promising (i.e. promising a 12 year Basic Education for all young people), in practice however, the dysfunctional bureaucracy (i.e. most of the educational institutions were ill-prepared in rolling out the reform programme) and the resources needed are either unavailable or if they were, they are either delayed or never get to their destination.

Overall, I would describe the situation in the Philippines as optimistic — with caveats. The economy is steadily improving in terms of the general indicators. However, income inequality remains a problem and has in fact worsened. Corruption also needs to be tackled.  Such problems do not bode well for political stability.  One potent approach that the government has taken to address income inequality is to alleviate poverty alongside with continued economic growth.  In addition, the government is plugging the leaks (i.e. identifying corruption flash points and addressing these) by pursuing the current administration’s centerpiece of “Tuwid na Daan” or “Pursuing the Straight Path.”  The business sector is happy that corruption has somehow abated and opinion polls continue to register moderate to high satisfactory ratings in favour of the current administration. A politically stable nation may eventually pave the way for genuine reforms of the Education sector to be carried out. However, if political stability is eroded, then one might not be mistaken in saying that the current state of Philippine education would turn out to be “more of the same.”

References:

Flores, Helen. (2014, June 2). 21M students return to schools. Philstar. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/06/02/1330089/21-m-students-return-school

Reyes, Vicente. (2010). The Philippine Department of Education: Challenges of Policy Implementation amidst Corruption. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 30(4), 381-400. http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1013&context=vicente_reyes

The World Bank. (2014). Philippines: National Program Support for Basic Education Ensuring universal access to basic education and improving learning outcomes (pp. 1-152). Washington, DC: World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2014/04/10/philippines-national-program-support-for-basic-education

For more information:

For a critique of the Philippine education system see “When Reforms Don’t Transform” (Bautista, Bernardo, Ocampo, 2009)

For a discussion on the bureaucracy and the mismanagement of resources at the DepEd, also see a “Case study of implementation amidst corruption linkages” (Reyes, 2009)

Consequences of privatization

Dr. Henry Levin

Dr. Henry Levin

In response to our recent post on Sweden, Henry Levin shared “Evaluating Consequences of Educational Privatization: Ideas and consequences of market principles in education,” a power point presentation from a lecture that he gave at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden, in March of 2013.

The presentation puts the Swedish experiences with privatization in a larger context by highlighting the many different approaches to privatization and discussing the different kinds of outcomes that may be worth taking into account. Thus, Levin points out that educational privatization can mean that schools have private funding; or that schools are operated privately by educational management organizations; or that private schools are afforded government funding, through vouchers or other means.  Even those approaches that use vouchers (such as Sweden since 1992; the Netherlands since 1917; Chile since 1980; and in US cities like Milwaukee since 1990 and Cleveland since 1995) can differ significantly in terms of how they are financed, their regulations/requirements, and the support services that are (and are not) provided.

Despite the fact that many privatization and voucher approaches have been around for some time, Levin argues that the evaluations are particularly difficult both because privatization has become a highly ideological and emotional issue and because there are a range of educational goals that should be taken into account (not just test scores). Levin suggests four criteria that should be taken into account for evaluating educational systems: 1. freedom to choose, 2. productive efficiency, 3. equity, 4. social cohesion. Levin also points out that there are trade-offs and conflicts amongst these different possible outcomes, as well as questions about which criteria deserve emphasis. Broadly, Levin suggests that the research indicates that while privatization increases school choice, it also increases social stratification, but there is little evidence yet on social cohesion. He concludes “we have made progress in understanding the consequences of educational privatization. But as we have expanded the circle of light, the perimeter of darkness has also grown.”

 

Interview with Carol Campbell

 

Dr. Carol Campbell

Dr. Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell is Associate Professor of Leadership and Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto and Co-Director of the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research (KNAER). Carol has international experience in bringing together evidence and strategies to advance policies and practices for higher quality and equity in education systems. This interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

The broader context of school choice in Sweden

While Swedish education is not in the news nearly as often as it’s higher-performing neighbor, Finland, it only took a mention of school choice to launch a series of articles and blog posts on Sweden in the past few weeks. The original source was an article in Slate by Ray Fisman, provocatively titled “Sweden’s School Choice Disaster.” While few disputed the characterization of the Swedish education system as “in crisis” (with the decline in international test scores as the primary basis), critics, including Andrew Coulson (from the Cato Institute), Tino Sanandaji (from National Review Online), and Coulson again (responding to Sanandaji) were quick to point out flaws in the analysis linking that decline to Sweden’s approach to privatization of public schools and school choice. Those critiques, in particular, point out the problems with connecting in any direct way the effects of a particular policy amidst so many other educational and contextual factors.

Perhaps co-incidentally, the OECD recently released its own report on the Swedish education system – “Shifting responsibilities: 20 years of education devolution in Sweden” – that discusses the larger decentralization agenda that Sweden put in place the 1990’s. Rather than singling out the effects of school choice, that report discusses a number of factors – including the speed with which reforms were pursued, the lack of a systemic vision, and inadequate capacity for local authorities to carry out their new responsibilities – that may have played a role in Sweden’s educational performance.

To get another perspective on the Swedish education system, we talked with Sam Abrams, a research associate at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College. Abrams, who has written about the different path taken by Finland as well as the intensive use of technology by one for-profit Swedish school operator offering an alternative to conventional instruction, suggested that the problems highlighted in the OECD report derive from an impatience in Sweden for change. Providing a historical perspective, Abrams explained that the Swedes had been ruled by the Social Democratic Party from 1932 to 1976 and again from 1982 to 1991, leading to centralized authority and high taxation along with growing resistance from conservatives desiring laissez-faire policies. “Building on the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Abrams said, “the conservatives in Sweden swept to power in 1991 and implemented a host of market-based reforms, including a full-fledged voucher system for schools. Yet the passion for school privatization and choice outpaced practical concerns about maintaining academic standards, developing teachers, and preventing segregation.” Abrams, who is completing a book for Harvard University Press on international education reform, predicted the Swedes would soon rein in privatization and refocus their efforts at school improvement. As he put it, the Swedes have learned that teachers as well as students want choice, but that choice is no panacea.

All in all, while it’s clear that Sweden has pursued school choice and the educational system as a whole has not improved, understanding school choice and its effects in Sweden needs to take into account the historical, political, geographic, economic and cultural factors that influence the development of the education system and its outcomes. Even for countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, which to outsiders may seem so similar, taken together these factors can generate remarkably different stories of educational development.

New OECD report leads to questions about educational innovation

While the OECD has released a number of reports this year, their most recent report addresses the measurement of educational innovation at the classroom and school levels. In this report, the OECD looked at “innovations” in education improvement strategy and ranked 19 countries accordingly. The report acknowledges that while the private sector has established innovation indicators derived from research and development (R&D) statistics and innovation surveys, the measurement of innovation and its effectiveness in the public sector is still in its infancy. Creating such measurements might be more difficult, as the report states that “cultural values, social policies and political goals can lead to differing prioritization of these different objectives across countries.” Innovation indicators will need to be linked to specific objectives, such as learning outcomes, if they are to be better understood.

Denmark came in first place, followed by Indonesia, Korea and the Netherlands. While I could not easily find news reports that focused on the high ranking of Korea, and the sole report I found on the Netherlands referred to parental concerns over a lack of educational innovation, multiple sources published reports that pointed to the near-bottom ranking of the US. Yet, even with the report citing a ‘dearth’ of innovation in the US, EdWeek has a feature article on the ways in which school principals in the US are increasingly acting like entrepreneurs and innovators in business.

Interestingly, as Pasi Sahlberg pointed out in his recent article in The Washington Post, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Finland—all high performing countries—have sought out innovative ideas for education from the United States, where many such ideas are largely ignored by the country’s education reformers. So, not only is educational innovation difficult to measure for the ways in which the concept of innovation might be country-specific, as the OECD explained, it might also prove difficult to measure due to the ways in which innovative ideas can travel, as countries share and borrow ideas from one another. In his brief response to Sahlberg’s article, Howard Gardner pointed out that innovative ideas have a history of being co-opted, borrowed, and misunderstood. Further, he notes that it is a mistake to attribute these ideas to sole individuals, such as himself–for he was inspired by other scholars, and all scholars are influenced by the freedom or constrictions of the conditions in which they work. To that point, a recent study of Norwegian teachers, which aimed to study those conditions in which “newness is created,” showed that innovative work is brought into being when “pluralities of perspectives” are taken into account.

In The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss also questioned the meaning innovation by looking at the language used in the report. She notes that Hong Kong’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in primary and secondary education”; Korea’s main innovation was “more peer evaluation of teachers in secondary education”; and Singapore’s main innovation was “more use of incentives for secondary teachers.” But is innovation a matter of degree? Reports such as this one raise questions about how we can measure concepts without a shared understanding of what those concepts mean. As the news report from Indonesia points out, even Indonesian education experts were surprised to see the country at the top of the list, especially when it has been ranked among the lowest performing countries in math and science on the 2013 OECD Pisa exam.

Deirdre Faughey

Singapore emphasizes 21st Century Competencies

In the wake of our posts on some of the current issues in education in Finland, we asked Paul Chua, Senior Teaching Fellow at the National Institute of Education, to let us know about some of the current discussions in Singapore.

Although Singapore was one of the highest-performing countries on the PISA Computer-Based Problem Solving test, a test meant to, amongst other things, measure students’ ability to think flexibly and creativity, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) took the opportunity to reiterate the rationale and approaches launched initially in 2010 to cultivate students’ 21st Century Competencies (21CC) .

In reiterating their approach, the MOE  continues to emphasize some of the features of their framework for 21CC that are shared with other countries, including creative and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and social and cultural skills (see for example Soland et al. 2013, and Voogt & Roblin 2012). However, the MOE has also highlighted a unique connection to the core values that the Singapore education system hopes to cultivate in all its students. Instead of learning the 21st century competencies in a vacuum, in Singapore, the competencies are supposed to be learned in the context of core values, like respect, resilience, responsibility, and harmony. From the Ministry’s perspective, such an approach should remind educators in the classroom of the role that values play in education and help them to enable students to become the self-directed learners, confident people, concerned citizens and active contributors that are the desired outcomes of the Singapore education system.

The MOE’s reiteration also includes an update of their approaches to the delivery of the 21CC.  Rather than creating a separate subject called “21CC,” the Singaporean approach calls for the integration of 21CC into both the academic and the non-academic curricula, such as Character and Citizenship Education and Co-Curricular Activities. In order to support that integration, the MOE hopes to help teachers develop the capacity to deliver a 21CC-embedded curriculum through pre-service and in-service learning courses, as well as on-going collaborative teacher learning through professional learning communities. Schools are also to collaborate with community partners to augment the learning and teaching experience with more imaginative and authentic learning environments and programmes. Finally, while cultivating a school culture that values and promotes the delivery of the 21st century competencies is not mentioned explicitly, that concern is reflected in the Singaporean school quality assurance framework.

In recent years, the MOE has also introduced a slew of initiatives to better assure the effective delivery and attainment of the 21st century competencies. These include modifications to the assessment practices in the primary schools; introduction of more varied secondary schools landscape; tweaking of the direct secondary school admission criteria at the interface between primary and secondary school education; and re-alignment of the school self-assessment and recognition framework. First, modifications to the primary schools assessment, including the development of holistic assessments, were recommended by the Primary Education Review and Implementation (PERI) Committee. These modifications were intended to better balance the acquisition of knowledge with the development of skills and values. In addition, a review of the reporting of the scores of the primary school leaving examination is currently underway “to support a more holistic education for students … on equipping students with values, attributes, knowledge and skills for work and life in the 21st century.” (Heng, 2014a). Secondly, to create a more varied and colourful (secondary) school landscape to realize the vision that “every school a good school,” and thereby alleviate the parental pressure of getting their children admitted to schools with the best academic reputations, all (secondary) schools are being supported by the Ministry to develop distinctive and rich learning programmes through the Applied Learning Programmes (ALP) and Learning for Life Programmes (LLP). Many of these Learning Programmes are themselves focused on the development of students’ 21st century competencies. Third, the Direct (Secondary) School Admission scheme is being tweaked so that a greater range of non-academic attributes such as resilience, character and leadership are recognized and hence encouraged, and yet implemented without adding to the burden of assessment. Finally, the Ministry has re-aligned its school self-assessment and recognition scheme to reflect its desire to nurture “every school a good school.” The re-alignments have been made for the intent of “broadening our definitions of excellence” (Heng, 2014b), as well as to give schools “more space to design student-centric programmes … and to create distinctive schools, good in your own ways” (Heng, 2014b).