“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik … I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029” – Chester E. Finn Jr., served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education.
“We have to see this as a wake-up call … We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated” – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
When The New York Times broke the news that students in Shanghai had stunningly outperformed their global counterparts in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), it sent shockwaves around the world, especially in the United States (USA). Many American commentators lamented the pedantic progresses achieved by schools and their students, and comparatively lackadaisical attitudes adopted by administrators in their pursuit for reform. Alarm bells rang as bureaucrats scrambled to address issues of disparity between states, and purported falling education standards.
There are, of course, limitations to the Pisa framework (most of them statistical) highlighted poignantly by James Fallows from “The Atlantic”. These were perspectives or questions put forth by an unnamed academic scientist at a major US university.
– To what extent were students trained specifically for the test?
– How were the representative groups of five thousand students selected in each study?
– Statistical inference strongly depends on the quality of study design and methods, and critical analysis of data.
– Standardised tests may have their uses but structuring national education systems around such tests seems to me to be a prescription for disaster.
The results were released and discussed last year; however, during a recent dialogue with Education Minister Heng Swee Keat (here), a participant made a reference to the aforementioned, and wondered whether Singapore and the Ministry of Education (MOE) could learn anything from the episode. In my personal opinion, it is interesting to note the similarities between the Singapore and Shanghai education systems, as well as to highlight specific areas that our administrators can possibly learn or adopt.
Shanghai And Singapore Students Are Tremendous Test-Takers
One of the biggest overlap between students in Shanghai and Singapore is the fact that they are excellent test-takers, through traditional practices of rote memorisation and regurgitation. Over the years, stakeholders – schools, teachers and parents – have been able to employ or impart techniques to students so as to help them navigate skilfully through an assortment of examinations and assessments. It comes as little surprise that the reliance on tuition has proliferated, moral education and co-curricular activities sacrificed for the completion of syllabuses, and non-tolerance of poor concentrations.
It was rightly noted in the same article that the results reflected on the “culture of education, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports”.
Standardised testing is a huge part of both education systems; naturally, contentions of disproportionately high levels of stress, excessively-heavy workloads and lack of holistic development are constantly surfaced. Nevertheless, the heavy focus given to examination syllabuses ensures a high level of proficiency with the basic components of mathematics, science and languages (as reflected in the Pisa rankings), and builds strong fundamentals for students to strengthen pursuits scholastically, as well as in the workplace.
Winds Of Change In Shanghai
Continued faith in the legacy of Confucianism – especially the commitment to quality education – has always empowered Asian countries, including China, to competitively build human capital (here). It would be constructive to briefly see what Shanghai’s educators have introduced, to raise the effectiveness and quality of its systems.
Teaching has rapidly risen as a preferred occupation in China, and anecdotal reports have shown that gross salaries across the board have increased for teachers; as in Singapore, strong prominence is given to the cultivation and professional development of principals and teachers. Despite the geographical challenges, Shanghai has instituted training at the municipal, district and school levels through the “Star Principal And Teacher Candidates Education Programme”; according to a presentation done by the Deputy Secretary-General of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, teachers are expected to “engage in three hundred and sixty hours of professional development within five years”, and threshold qualifications have risen over the years.
As follows are some interesting points that I picked up in the report “Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from Pisa for the United States”.
Teachers And Teaching
– While teachers do not receive very high salaries, they often have other significant income on top of their salaries (private tutorials, invited talks, school “bonuses).
– Subject-based “teaching-study groups” for students.
– Teachers are sometimes expected to teach demonstration lessons (public lessons) for a large number of other teachers to observe and comment upon.
Continuous Curriculum Reform
– Ambition to introduce universal pre-school education.
– The reform discourse is one of “student learning”; a discourse that is shared by other similar reforms in Singapore and Hong Kong.
– Integrated papers cross disciplinary boundaries, and test students’ capacity to apply their knowledge to real-life problems. Examination questions provide students with information not covered in the syllabuses.
– “Remedial systems” and “supplementary systems” are in place.
– In Shanghai schools, there is a municipal requirement that every student should engage in at least one hour per day of physical education.
– Students are often overwhelmed by all these learning activities, both within and outside schools. The national 2020 planning document calls for a “reduction of student workload”.
Authorities have implemented crucial curricular and pedagogical reforms, with educators given more liberty to experiment with teaching-learning methodologies. This has been in place for some time, and critical in explanations for its recent successes.
Singapore has always maintained a high level of performance at Pisa, and its status as an international education superstar has hardly been diminished in recent years. The observation that it has been placing more emphasis on student-centric teaching-learning processes is a positive sign; the attention given to pre-school schooling and student-initiated activities in Finland (here) has not gone unnoticed by the MOE.
I think Singapore is in a good position: we do a good job in terms of imparting basic knowledge and facts from a young age, there are channels for lateral movements and upward streaming (though social stratification might accentuate the divides), and we are slowly recognising that success is not defined by academic performance per se. At the moment, more attention should be given to our language education policies and the inculcation of lifelong learning, so looking abroad for inspiration will remain productive.