Copying Singapore’s Education: Are Americans Foolish Too?

Singapore Educational Consultants Factory

I have written a few posts warning my friends and readers in the countries around Singapore, like Indonesia and Thailand, not to blindly ape Singapore’s much vaunted education system. I have warned about looking at Singapore with rose-tinted glasses. I have argued that Singapore does not have an education system. What Singapore possess is a huge test prep system. Everything that is done in the test prep centers (they call them “schools” in Singapore) is geared towards preparing students to pass those high stakes examinations. I have also written about how foreign observers are eager to praise and copy the Singapore system. Even Barack Obama has mentioned how “well” Singapore’s “education” system is during his campaign trail.

Some readers may argue that there are schools that are skipping traditional examinations like the GCE O levels but they forget these are only for the elite top schools in Singapore. Why is this not the norm in Singapore? I have argued passionately that the examinations system is out of date and is one factor for the disconnect that affects many teenagers in schools in Singapore.

Yet, the Singapore system is being imitated by schools in the Southeast Asian region in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, and even as far away as China. Today, we see this trend being followed eagerly by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. To quote Gerald Bracey:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year and national subject standards, which will inevitably lead to one national test. Duncan wants to institute merit pay, which is a euphemism for paying teachers to produce higher test scores. Such merit pay, combined with national academic standards and one national test, will inevitably continue to transform our public schools into test prep factories. Thus, more and more of the same old industrialist factory model of education. All we need to do to improve schools, says Duncan, is intensify the command-and-control model of education.

Do all these sound familiar to Singaporeans out there? Is it a surprise that Arne Duncan wants something akin to what Singapore has now? TIMSS has caused American bureaucrats and politicians to panic. They fear that the dragons of the East will leave America in the dust with the dragons’ consistent high rankings in TIMSS. But they forget that it is precisely America’s lack of centralized control that has allowed it to produce the world’s most creative talents in all fields that has powered America’s ascendancy in the world today.

Yet, even in Singapore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is trying, probably reluctantly, to move away from the traditional examinations mode because it recognizes at least officially, that there is a need to change the schooling experience to reflect the 21st century needs. But the change is only for the elite schools. But as Bracey puts it:

“Shouldn’t every child have an education like the President’s daughters?”

Bracey was of course commenting on Arne Duncan’s reforms. He was highlighting a clear contradiction between what the Obama Administration intends for education for the rest of America, and what the President’s daughter receives. In Singapore, what the “elite” receives, is different from that of the lesser mortals too. The elite in Singapore, like Obama’s daughters, will get schools that are not factory-like in nature, boasting of enlightened approaches to education. The rest of America, like the rest of Singapore, will get the rags and the factory assembly line which is indicative of where the powers-that-be think such students should be heading for.

“The working, the working, just the working life.”

- “Factory” by Bruce Springsteen

by Amran Noordin, Singapore Educational Consultants, August 19, 2009