In this post, Corresponding Editor Paul Chua briefly describes an emerging conception of “centralized-decentralization” in Singapore’s efforts to enable schools and educators to support the development of students’ 21st century skills. The post grows out of Chua’s recent conversations with IEN editors Thomas Hatch and Deirdre Faughey, and with Dennis Shirley, who was visiting Singapore to discuss some of his work on convergence pedagogy and mindful educational change.
News and research on education around the world often focuses on issues of autonomy – the extent to which schools and the educators in them have flexibility in decision-making—and the role of central authorities in dictating practices and maintaining system quality.
In Singapore, while strong central decision-making was credited with contributing to high performance on international tests like TIMMS and then PISA, concerns were also raised about the degree of responsiveness and innovation that such a centralized system could support, especially when trying to shift schools to a focus on 21st century skills.
As a consequence, the Singapore education Ministry started to give increased autonomy to schools to make local decisions. For example, the Ministry developed the Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) initiative to take the emphasis off rote learning and to encourage schools to develop learning experiences that engage students, promote critical and creative thinking, and support students’ holistic development. As part of the TLLM initiative, schools were given the flexibility to develop their own pedagogical approaches (e.g. inquiry-based learning approaches, problem-based learning, Socratic questioning) as long as those approaches were aligned to the intent of TLLM. The Ministry also created “white spaces” in the schedule in which schools were free to develop their own unique courses and learning programs, such as “Introduction to Film Studies” and the like.
At the same time, however, concerns about maintaining system coherence and quality also led the ministry to retain the layer of supervision (centralization) between the Ministry and schools by creating the position of superintendent. Among other tasks, superintendents were charged with forming and facilitating principal learning communities designed to help school leaders to deepen their understanding of the rationale of the policies to be implemented. In this way, the Ministry hoped to lessen the pressure on schools to comply with every detail of policies and to encourage them to make adaptions for their local context that were still consistent with the overall intent of the policies.
Since that time, Singapore has pursued several other policies that reflect this centralized decentralized approach (or what Charlene Tan and Pak Tee Ng have described as decentralized centralism). For example, for many years, Singapore maintained relatively high class sizes of about 40 students per teacher. When the Ministry decided to reduce class size several years ago, however, it did not dictate a particular size for all classes. Instead, it created a new matrix of student-teacher ratios that determined the overall allocation of teachers to schools, but left schools with the flexibility to determine the optimal class size for different kinds of classes. Thus, some schools have decided to have larger classes of higher ability students while creating smaller sizes for students who are making progress more slowly (e.g. 20 students per teacher or even smaller like 10 to 15 students per teacher).
Thus, centralized decentralization is built on the premise that decision making needs to be made “on the ground” by principals and teachers since they are closest to the students and can make the decisions that respond to local conditions. However, much as the flip side of increasing autonomy has been increasing accountability for results, from the Ministry’s perspective, centralized guidance (such as the parameters of the schools student-teacher ratio) is needed to maintain some semblance of coherence as a system. Ultimately, the approach is designed to enable the system to reap all the benefits associated with tight coupling and a strong central authority without overly constraining the local actors, which would deprive the system of innovation and creativity. Making centralized decentralization work, however, may well depend on the professionalism and capacity of superintendents and school leaders to resist rote compliance and learn how to make local adaptations that do not stray too far from policymakers’ expectations.
Centralized decentralization: the calibrated application of the forces of centering and calibrated release of the force of centering (resulting in decentering) in order to achieve coherence and optimal results and outcomes for a system. The approach rests on the ability of the policy maker to anticipate the responses of schools to the policy, to understand how the policy sits within the system, and to calibrate the level or point at which to apply the system’s constraining force.