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International lessons

Posted: October 23, 2012 7:55 p.m.
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"For the whole conduct of life is based on this: that what we admire in others we want to do ourselves."
~ Quintilian, Roman Rhetorician

Socked away between Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia is the island nation of Singapore, home to approximately 5.3 million people. With a literacy rate of more than 90 percent, life expectancy of 85 years for females and 79 years for males, and a diverse population of mainly Chinese, Malay and Indian, this diverse nation of Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus and Christians provides international lessons worthy of consideration in the education community and the community-at-large.

With a highly-developed and successful free-market economy, Singapore enjoys a remarkably open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a per capital Gross Domestic Product equal to that of the four largest West European countries. And as I have been consuming current discussion of math and science achievement in the U.S., it is apparent that one nation leads in both math and science in the latest round of international comparisons - Singapore.

Known as The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, this assessment of fourth and eighth graders around the world surfaces Singapore as the world's leader in both subjects at both grade levels. In fourth grade math, the topics tested are numbers, geometric shapes and measures and data display. Eighth graders are tested on numbers, algebra, geometry, data display and probability. In fourth grade science, the topics tested are life science, physical science and earth science, whereas eighth graders grapple with biology, chemistry, physics and earth science.

So what do educators and citizens of Singapore do that we do not? Try in-depth learning and the courage and wisdom to invest in teachers' pay and professional development. What are we to take from this international leader in both math and science?

First, consider in-depth learning. From what I can glean from reading accounts in the professional literature, students in Singapore's elementary school math classes do not spend a lot of time working on a lot of problems of the same kind, e.g., adding two three-digit numbers with regrouping 30 times. Rather, these students work on but a few of these kinds of problems giving way to oral and written explanation of what "regrouping" means. Reports of Singapore classrooms find students often engaged in meta-cognition, i.e., "thinking about thinking" be it in math, science or other disciplines. Apparently, learning-for-understanding reigns premier. There's a potential lesson here.

Second, consider Singapore's investment in its teachers. To become a teacher, one has to earn a college degree with a major in a recognized discipline such as math, science, history, language or the like. In doing so, it is well accepted that those who teach children must be well-steeped in core knowledge. But, it does not stop here. It is also well accepted that those who teach children must also have knowledge of how to effectively transfer knowledge and skills to their young charges. Thus, a fifth year enrolled in the National Education Institute is required of Singapore's teachers as they learn about and hone their classroom skills in keeping with what works.

Not only is this fifth year paid for by the government, these teachers-in-training are also provided with the same salary as a first year teacher. Talk about respect. But, can it get any better? In Singapore, yes. Indeed, as many have pointed out, first-year teachers are paid more than lawyers, doctors and engineers. Even with all of our critics, there's a potential lesson here as well.

Finally, despite the need for a strong military which Singapore does enjoy, it has increased spending for schools every year since its founding in the 1960s. Education, in rhetoric and deed, is number one.

What we admire in others we want to do ourselves, indeed.

Gary Mathews is Superintendent of the Newton County School System.


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