Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Education Reform: Let's Do Things Like Singapore

The headline reads "Wake-up call: U.S. students trail global leaders." This is not the first time other countries had a higher number than the U.S. What does that mean exactly?

If you watch CNN, you'll recognize journalist and author Fareed Zakariya. In 2006, he looked at the international test scores by Singapore's 4th and 8th grade students, who score #1 in global science and math rankings, but fair "poorly to American kids...down the road." Zakariya finds that "Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics."

To find out why this exists, he turned to Singapore's Minister of Education, Tharman Shanmgaratam.

“We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well ─ like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

The information that is obtained from the international tests has value and the recent results confirm what we have already known for sometime without this test data. There is a widening student achievement gap based on socio-economic factors. This gap is a serious problem and needs a targeted solution; but a meaningful solution does not equal that we need to be more like Singapore. On the contrary, turning our school system into an "exam meritocracy" is no goal at all and harmful to what has made this nation a global leader.

Responding to this "crisis", Singapore Math textbooks and teacher training has hit the U.S. educational publishing market. In a 2009 press release announced that "global education leader Houghton Mifflin Harcourt today launches Math in Focus, an innovative new math program based on the highly acclaimed Singapore approach to mathematics." The program is described as on the expensive side, both in materials it requires and teacher training. (Notably, the Florida Department of Education selected Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as its consultant to assist school districts in implementing new evaluation systems based on student achievement.)

Politicians, legislators, and professional educational reformers are going to have to be more precise as to how we are not able to compete in the global marketplace. That rationale is not enough to support legislation like SB736/HB7019. In fact, it is reason enough to reject the bill.

Missed blogs on educational reform efforts in Florida? There are all here.


  1. No one disagrees that poor people seem to, on top of their condition, also have trouble learning. But that state of mind has nothing to do with what it takes not to be poor and stupid. What is changing is that people are recognizing after decades of reforms and silly theories about talent and brains, that study and true achievement in school is still the golden rule.

    The following study I did of TIMSS data...

    and I found that students, no matter what country or what color or what anything, achieved success in the very same fashion. This idea that there is some alternate reality that will save us is a myth. We hire and outsource to these countries because they are in a stage of development that makes them more competitive. We will slowly gain back some of that competitiveness because of the new economic state we find ourselves in. The age of frivolity that we enjoyed in all things is over.

  2. Anonymous, I will look at your study. I'd like to add that we outsource because it is simply cheaper. It is possible to get top quality programming at half the price in the U.S. If we don't keep that work in th US, we will have a brain drain, with talent going to other countries to work. Thank you for your post.