Tag Archives: Education policy

Real Singaporean Lessons: Why do Singaporean Students perform so well in PISA?

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Zongyi Deng and S. Gopinathan shine a spotlight on the success of Singapore’s school system and argue that the country’s success comes from educational policies and practices that have helped to develop social cohesion, economic development, and nation building. As Deng and Gopinathan suggest, reforms that aim to borrow “best practices” must consider the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part.

Singapore has been widely recognised as one of the world’s top-performing systems. Its extraordinary record of students’ performance in international comparative studies of achievement includes: first in problem-solving, second in mathematics, and third in science and reading (PISA 2012); second in mathematics, fourth in science and fifth in reading (PISA 2009); first in science (both primary 4 and secondary 2 levels) and second in mathematics (primary 4 level), and third in mathematics (secondary 2 level) (TIMSS 2007); and fourth among 45 education systems (PIRLS 2006). What explains the top rankings in the current PISA tests? What lessons, if any, could Singapore offer other countries who want to improve on their educational performances?

As with other high-performing countries, answers to these two questions can be found in a body of literature (reports, books and articles) written by international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, consultancy firms like McKinsey and Grattan, and educational spokesmen and scholars like Pasi Sahlberg and Pat Tee Ng. Singapore is said to have a high- quality teaching force ensured and enhanced by high standards of teacher recruitment, effective teacher preparation and professional development. The school system is run by high-quality school leadership developed through careful selection, leadership experiences and professional development programmes. In addition, the country sets high academic expectations and standards for its students and monitors the performance of schools against those expectations and standards. Furthermore, Singapore is noted to have implemented educational reform to promote student-centric and ICT-enhanced pedagogy that encourages deep learning, critical thinking and creativity.

Overall, this body of literature adopts the “best practice” approach to explaining the educational success of a high-performing system wherein a set of particular characteristics are identified and translated into best practices for borrowing worldwide. However, whether the identified characteristics are causally linked to the system’s superior performance in PISA is an open question, with little or no empirical evidence to justify the identification. In addition, lacking in such explanation are those factors beyond school—educational history, family aspirations, parental involvement, private tuition, etc.—that could play a part in PISA success, particularly in Asian countries.

In our latest article (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016), we provide an alternative explanation for Singapore’s education success and, in so doing, question such an approach to explaining the education success of a high-performing country. From a historical perspective, education has played a vital role in the success story of Singapore—the remarkable transformation from a fishing village to a first world country over four decades.  Such a transformation has much to do with the effective implementation of a set of educational policies and reforms by a strong and competent government. Among these policies were the bilingual policy in the 1950s which encourages Singaporeans to be proficient in both the English language and in their respective ethnic mother tongues (Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil), and the streaming policy in the late 1970s which track primary and secondary students into various streams based on their examination results.  The implementation of the bilingual policy entails a commitment to equality with respect to language rights of the three main ethic groups and a recognition of the necessity and value of English as an international language to Singapore.  The streaming policy, modified and adjusted over the years, has reduced attrition and early school leaving.  In addition, the government mandated and implemented a uniform and common curriculum (taught in English) centered on the study of mathematics, science and languages, with technical subjects as a supplement, and made a firm commitment to the principle of meritocracy.  Universal free primary education and curriculum standardization were achieved by the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively. In short, educational policy and practice in Singapore has functioned as a means for social cohesion, a vehicle for economic development, and for nation building.

While it has been sometimes fashionable to decry the significance of school education in the West, and indeed be skeptical about the role schools can play in social, civic, and even economic functions, in Singapore there are few such doubts (Gopinathan, 2007). This leads to our questioning of the employment of PISA results as the prime yardstick of the educational performance of an education system. The primary function of school education as conceived in PISA is economic—developing competencies for the economy in the 21st century. Such a conception entails a narrowing of the function of education, thus reducing the social and civic significance of an education system.

The historical perspective also brings to light two basic features of the system that may better help explain Singapore’s high rankings in PISA:

First, the national curriculum stresses the development of students’ competences in mathematics, science and languages – the three subjects tested in PISA.  Second, a commitment to academic rigour and standards, underpinned by the principle of meritocracy and enforced by a system of national high-stakes examinations (PSLE [Primary School Leaving Examination], ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels), has lifted the floor under the quality of teaching and learning for all student groups throughout the school years (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016).

However, the national curriculum, together with the high-stakes examination system, has steered classroom practice towards a kind that is still largely traditional and didactic in nature, directed towards the transmission of curriculum content and examination performance. Since the mid-1980s the government has attempted to alter such a traditional practice through educational reform.  The most progressive and radical reform came in 1997 when then Prime Minister Goh introduced the framework of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN). Subsequently, a plethora of reform initiatives have been rolled out in schools, which aim at producing pedagogical changes characterized by: (1) more opportunities for constructing knowledge, higher-order thinking, and innovation; (2) more meaningful use of ICT for teaching and learning;  (3) more time on interdisciplinary learning and a greater emphasis on knowledge application.

What has been the impact of reform initiatives on conventional classroom practice? What is the present nature of pedagogy in Singapore’s classrooms? According to the findings of Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) in the National Institute of Education (NIE),

Notwithstanding multiple reform initiatives to encourage the TSLN’s pedagogical vision, pedagogical practice in Singapore’s classrooms has remained largely traditional, directed towards curriculum content delivery and examination performance. There is very little evidence of sustained teaching for higher order thinking, meaningful use of ICT, students’ constructing knowledge, and interdisciplinary learning (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016)

This finding, in fact, is consistent with what is found in the international literature about the inability of reform to alter conventional classroom practice.

It is therefore questionable that the success of Singapore in PISA can be attributable to the government’s implementation of educational reforms aimed at transforming classroom pedagogy. In fact, if TSLN’s reform initiatives had an impact on classroom practice, it would probably have led to a fall in students’ performance in PISA. There is empirical evidence in Finland and Canada (Quebec) confirming that when the traditional and teacher-centred pedagogy is replaced by a student-centric, constructivist one, the PISA results of a system decline (Sahlgren, 2015).

The CRPP’s empirical findings reveal a distinct kind of ‘hybrid pedagogy’ that serves to explain in part Singaporean students’ success in PISA:

  • Classroom teaching is largely driven by content coverage and preparing students for semester-end and high-stakes examinations, with the primary focus on the transmission of knowledge and skills contained in the national curriculum (represented by teaching and examination syllabi).
  • Accordingly, classroom teachers tend, to a large degree, to rely on whole-class forms of lesson organisation, with whole-class lectures and question-and-answer sequences (IRE) as the dominant methods. They also depend heavily on textbooks and instructional materials and provide students with a significant amount of worksheets and homework, with a special focus on their mastery of specific procedures and problem-solving skills.
  • When teachers do make limited use of constructivist pedagogical methods – such as checking prior knowledge, monitoring understanding and providing formative feedback – they largely do so for the purpose of getting students to know the correct answers rather than developing their conceptual understanding and higher order thinking. Classroom talk, largely dominated by teachers and used mostly for checking content mastery, does not lead to extended conversation and critical thinking on the part of the students (Deng & Gopinathan, 2006; also see Hogan, 2014).

And, this pedagogy is regulated and shaped by a centralized education system, with a national curriculum that prescribes what is to be learnt and taught. It is also powerfully driven by high stakes examinations which stream students into various school types and curriculum tracks based on their examination performances.

In view of such pedagogy and its underpinning cultural and institutional arrangements, Singapore’s superior performance in PISA no longer appears to be a miracle.  Here comes a paradox. Singapore’s pedagogy is still largely conservative, directed toward the transmission of predetermined content and examination performance. Yet PISA is strongly forward-looking and future-oriented, with the ambition of testing skill in authentic contexts deemed essential for the 21st century. If this is true, then Singapore’s pedagogy must be seen as functioning well in preparing students for the 21st century. However, it has been widely recognized that such pedagogy is ineffective in developing individual talents, critical and innovative thinkers for the knowledge-based economy.

The paradox exists because of the uncritical acceptance of PISA by many politicians and policy-makers.  PISA tests, framed by the test taking situation and in the form of paper-and pencil items, do not live up to its promise of testing real-life skills and competencies in authentic contexts. Furthermore, the claim that PISA measures the competencies needed for 21st century, Stefan Hopmann argues, is unwarranted and questionable; OECD provides neither sufficient justifications nor systemic research evidence for it.

In conclusion, the social, cultural and institutional contexts of schools in Singapore, and the kind of pedagogy regulated, supported, and constrained in such contexts, are vital in understanding Singapore’s top rankings in the current PISA tests. It is therefore questionable that one can borrow “best practices” from a system without a careful consideration of the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part. Furthermore, the OECD’s claims that PISA results provide the prime indicator of the educational performance of a country and that PISA measures skills needed for life in the 21st century are questionable and contested.

Notes on Authors

Zongyi Deng is an associate professor at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

S. Gopinathan is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

 

International Cooperation in Education

Our monthly scan of news and reports often reveal numerous discussions of ways in which different countries are collaborating to support the development of education. These collaborations are reflected in a number of reports on the development and deepening of partnerships around particular educational issues, or as part of larger efforts addressing many aspects of society. This month’s news includes cooperative agreements that focus on issues like vocational education, technology, and system building.

Vocational Education:

One of the ways in which countries are working together to improve education is as part of a larger effort to meet the needs of the labor market. For example, Germany is working with Bulgaria on a joint vocational education project that aims to help Bulgaria make reforms to existing legislation, standards, and programs. As Bulgaria’s Education Minister explained in www.focus-fen.com  “Bulgaria would like to introduce the dual education system so that there is a link between vocational education and the labour market.” The Slovak Spectator reported that Germany will also be working to build a similar collaboration with Austria.

Meanwhile, as reported by Thailand’s public relations departmentThailand, Laos, and Vietnam are working together to create tri-country vocational certification programs that will allow students with opportunities to study in each country. Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network (AUN) Nantana Gajaseni said that each ASEAN government should support the grouping of educational institutions specializing in similar fields of study as clusters, in order to push for education development in this region.

Technology:

Finland and Estonia are also working together as part of a specific endeavor to develop cloud technology that will “step up” educational and technological cooperation between the two countries. According to the Finnish government’s press release, “This joint effort aims to enable the creation of cloud services in education and learning and the use of digital materials and find new ways of learning and teaching in the learning environments in both countries. In particular, we wish to help change the school culture to become more student-oriented and inspiring and promote approaches to teaching where the focus is on experiences of success.”

System Building:

As noted in Business Reporter, Denmark and Pakistan have been expanding upon a supportive relationship, as part of Denmark’s interest in “conflict-hit” Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Denmark supports civil society organizations in the area, such as the Youth Parliament, to which it has given financial aid of 3.5 million dollars. In his most recent visit, Denmark’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Jesper Moller Sorensen, highlighted the importance of education in nation-building, and suggested that Pakistan increase education spending as a means of investing in the country’s future.
A new cooperation between China and South Africa has also been announced. According to Business Day Live, South Africa is “hoping to get lessons from China on curriculum development and implementation; teacher training and development; vocational education and training; and research and development to improve basic education.” The agreement also includes a cultural exchange and the teaching of Mandarin in South African schools.

 

Bilateral Partnerships:

Cooperative education efforts have also been seen in countries that seem to be looking to build alliance in multiple arenas. For example, The National reports that the United Arab Emirates and South Korea have been building a bilateral strategic partnership since 2009, which is now expanding to the areas of education, cultural, medical and health care sectors. The Kuwait News Agency also reported that Canada and Kuwait are working on ways to enhance cooperation in scientific, cultural, and educational fields, and to facilitate visa procedures for Kuwaiti students and their parents.

 

Memoranda of Understanding:

In the news we also see multiple examples of countries signing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on educational cooperation. Examples include:

Centralized-Decentralization emerging in Singapore

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.

Scanning the globe

Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

Several reports over the past month highlight the variety of causes that are blamed for failures to improve educational performance around the world. This short scan of reports focusing on issues like school quality and test-score performance, reveals typical concerns about teacher training and teacher quality, questions about the language of instruction and equality of education, as well as questions about the choices policymakers have made and the “policy churn” that can undermine implementation.
 

School Quality

Earlier this year in Sweden, 11,000 students were left without a school to attend when the private education firm that operated it went bankrupt. According to an article published online by Reuters, additional concerns raised about the quality of education in these schools led the opposition Green Party, a long-term proponent of school choice, to issue a public apology in a Swedish newspaper, with the headline: “Forgive us, our policy led our schools astray.”

In Vietnam, concerns have been expressed over the quality of care and education children receive in privately operated preschools. Referring to the government policy to privatize education as a failure, thanhniennews.com writes that limits placed on the growth of public preschool facilities has allowed private preschools “of dubious quality to mushroom.” Another article, posted on Vietnam.net, points out the additional problem of inadequate teacher training in provincial and privately operated preschools.

Test-Score Performance

In Malaysia, we see a debate over the cause of the decline of TIMSS scores. The World Bank released a report that found the decline to be caused by the switch in the language of instruction from Bahasa Malaysia to English. However, an article in The Malay Mail online cites the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), for pointing out that in 2007 (the year scores declined sharply), the students had yet to receive their instruction in English. Instead, PAGE attributed the decline to the poor quality of teachers and insufficient teaching hours. The Education Ministry announced plans to form a panel to investigate Malaysian students’ decline in performance.

Finnbay.com reports that Krista Kiuru, Finland‘s Minister of Education and Science, has allocated €22.5 million in state aid to promote equality in education for the period 2014-2015 to regain Finland’s top seat in PISA. “Success of Finnish education in international comparisons must be regained by having educational equality and non-discrimination,” said Kiuru.

Educational Improvement and “Policy Churn”

Despite declines in New Zealand students’ test scores, The Otago Daily Times reports that Education Minister Hekia Parata will not do anything differently. Parata attributes the slide to 10 years of a changing education system and not its controversial National Standards assessments, or a lack of school funding. According to Parata, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General, has assured her that the country is already doing “what they recommend should be done when you want a whole of system change.”

The Nation has reported that the recent political upheaval in Thailand could mean that the sweeping curriculum-based overhaul of the education system might not come to fruition. The country had planned radical changes, such as decreasing the number of school hours for primary students from 800 to 600 per year, and requiring that students learn outside of the classroom for up to 400 hours per year. In addition, the Pheu Thai party’s controversial, yet “much-touted election policy” called the One Tablet PC Per Child Project, might not be implemented. Other policies at risk of being shelved include changes to the university admission system, promotion of vocational education, and the ongoing effort to improve Thailand’s international educational ranking.

Canada

Harper government’s First Nations education plans collapse

The Canadian Press (October 4, 2012)

National Chief Shawn Atleo

With graduation rates below 50 percent, Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations hoped to see a legislative joint action plan by 2014, but the plans dissolved after three days of deliberation.

National Chief Shawn Atleo said, “The instructions that you have afforded here by this resolution are very clear and that is to reject, to say no, to federal legislation.”

Ottawa wanted legislation to establish school-boards that would give native governments control over their own education, but chiefs questioned the federal decision-making process and a “one-size-fits-all law that would not work for reserves whose rights are defined by treaties.”

The decision of the chiefs on Wednesday to walk away from that process is a major blow to the relatively peaceful Crown-First Nation relationship of the past few years.

For more information:

Native Leaders Reject Education Overhaul

Plans for Ottawa-First Nations Co-opperation on Education Reform Collapse