ON DECEMBER 6, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment administered in 72 nations every three years that measures 15-year-old students’ skills in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. Massachusetts students did very well and placed toward the top of the world distribution when their scores are broken out from the national results. Singapore once again topped the global rankings.

Long known for its high achievement in core academic subjects, Singapore is now also blazing a trail as a leader in rethinking approaches to education to prepare students for an increasingly complex global economy. A year ago, we led a delegation of 25 Massachusetts educators to Singapore to learn from that nation’s success educating students for the 21st century.

Our delegation included deans of schools of education, Department of Higher Education and school district leaders, directors of foundations, and leaders of teacher professional development organizations. In preparation for this visit we met with senior staff of the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education leading our educator preparation efforts and we sharpened the focus of our visit to have it center on teacher and school principal preparation and support. In Singapore, we were hosted by colleagues at the National Institute of Education, the sole organization there responsible for teacher and principal preparation.

Singapore’s education system is admirable because in the span of 50 years it has helped to transform a third world economy with a largely illiterate population into an innovation economy with very low unemployment rates and a very high per capita income. They accomplished this by making education a central focus of their development strategy. In 2011, however, rather than rest on their laurels, the Singapore Ministry of Education proposed a revision of the national curriculum to move beyond the mastery of literacy, mathematics, and science to help students develop 21st century skills.

These go beyond core academic subjects and include a focus on developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship management. To cultivate these capabilities, they emphasize communication, collaboration, and information skills as well as critical and creative thinking. They have also focused on civic literacy, the competencies necessary for active participation as a citizen, and cross-cultural skills and global awareness, which encompass embracing cultural differences and understanding the interdependency of Singapore with the rest of the world. These skills are part of the country’s new values-driven, student-centric approach that places values and character development at the core of the curriculum, with the aim of preparing students to embrace the strengths provided by the cultural and religious diversity of their society.


Some of the same education goals were included in a report of the Task Force on 21st Century Skills of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, released in 2008, three years before Singapore launched its initiative. The report, entitled “School Reform in the New Millennium: Preparing All Students for 21st Century Success,” called for similar changes on the part of our education leaders to make education relevant to the demands of a rapidly changing economy and society.

Fernando Reimers
Fernando Reimers

It outlined clear strategies to achieve such a vision, including significant rethinking of educator preparation and professional support. Unfortunately, most educators never saw the report and the economic recession prevented the implementation of this ambitious vision. In contrast, Singapore moved to align its teacher and principal preparation programs with their vision for 21st century education. The goal of our visit to Singapore was to learn how they had done this.

What we learned is that Singapore’s success in moving its education forward to embrace 21st century skills is built upon the same foundation that propelled the country to the top ranking on PISA’s measures of core academic achievement—the strategic alignment of resources around a shared vision and a belief that schools and educators are the key to the country’s success. Schools and students must meet a very high level of proficiency. No matter what school a student attends, they are guaranteed an excellent education. Educators in Singapore are fond of saying: “All schools are good schools.” Teachers and principals are respected and heralded publicly as “nation builders.”

Singapore’s National Institute of Education recruits new teachers from the highest achieving high school graduates in the country, and provides them with the most rigorous academic training to prepare them for teaching or to work in other professions if they so choose. They have developed career pathways that support teachers from novice to career to mastery to leadership. Principals and teacher leaders are identified, trained, and supported with a focus on developing authentic leadership. Teachers and school principals travel abroad during their training to study educational innovations in other countries. All of this is done with the goal of building capacity to support continuous improvement and focus on the future needs of the nation.

The new curriculum has led them to deploy pedagogies that support a certain level of individual instruction oriented to individual students’ interests, as well as foster collaboration, and more use of technology in the classroom. In our school visits we observed students collaborating on projects which included designing software or engaging in science expeditions. These were student-led, were extended and challenging projects, and involved collaboration in teams and the use of technology to support such collaborative work.

To share the learnings from this visit with our education colleagues in the Commonwealth, we followed the example of John Quincy Adams, who wrote admiringly in Letters on Silesia about the education system of Prussia while he served as ambassador there. Similarly, Horace Mann, the first Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote a book analyzing the education systems of Germany and France, which helped advance his campaign for public education in the US. We published the reflections of those in the delegation in a book titled Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore.

In this book we outlined a series of recommendations to align teacher preparation with the vision of 21st century education proposed in the state board of education task force report nine years ago. We hope the book will stimulate dialogue and collaboration among the 80 teacher preparation programs in the state, and the many districts and other providers that offer professional development. It is clear that ours is a challenge of collective leadership since, unlike the structure in Singapore, no single agency has the authority to produce the necessary coherence that will help us close the gap between our aspirations for teacher preparation and current practice.

Paul Toner
Paul Toner

We propose specific recommendations for policy makers, state and district leaders, teacher education institutions, school principals, teachers, and the public—all of whom are essential to transforming our education system. The recommendations include making explicit, and communicating broadly, the expected goals of K-12 education and explaining how they align with a vision for the future of Massachusetts that includes preparing students for careers, civic engagement, and life. Our hope is that more learning in our schools is personalized, student-centered, and engages students with real world problems, over extended periods, in ways that involve collaboration and that are student-led and paced.

We recommend developing common frameworks for teacher education institutions so they are aligned with the expected goals of K-12 education. For example, teacher preparation institutions could develop the capacities of our teachers to reflect on their practice as a way to improve their capacity to work in teams, to personalize learning, and contribute to the integrated development of their own cognitive, social, and leadership skills as well as self-knowledge and self-management, so they can also foster these competencies in the future for their students. Furthermore, there should be regular communication and articulation agreements between district leaders and teacher education institutions to provide feedback to preparation programs and to provide support for teachers throughout their careers.

District administrators and principals need better and ongoing training in conducting meaningful evaluations and providing feedback for improving classroom practice. School boards must develop the capacity to work with district leaders to create leadership pipelines that encourage growing teacher-leaders and administrators within the systems so that the values of the school system are sustained long-term.

Since the book was published, in May of last year, many of the participants in the delegation have encouraged the discussion of these ideas in a range of forums, from meetings of deans of schools of education to meetings of superintendents and school leaders. Several deans of schools of education in the state have encouraged their faculty to discuss the implications of these propositions for their institution.

On January 21, Education First and Teach Plus are co-hosting an event in Cambridge with national and state policy makers and practitioners to examine the PISA results and “No Time to Lose,” a recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures that makes recommendations similar to our book as to how states can move forward with their own vision for preparing our students for success in a global economy.

Such dialogue is valuable, but is very different from the more streamlined way in which a nation such as Singapore, where a single institution is responsible for teacher preparation, can develop an implementation strategy to translate their curricular aspirations into supports for more robust pedagogies for 21st century teaching and learning. This is the same type of process, however, that took place here in meeting houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, from which emerged the idea that it might be possible to create our own way of government that assured every person freedom and the pursuit of happiness. We hope that similar conversations will help us this time discern ways in which we might, together, transform our public schools into institutions that indeed equip all children with the capacity for self-rule, freedom and the pursuit of happiness in the 21st century global economy.

Fernando Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Paul Toner is executive director of the Massachusetts office of Teach Plus, a teacher-led education policy organization, and is a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.   


2 replies on “Lessons from Singapore ”

  1. Another education commentary that is silent on funding. The Massachusetts Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing state aid to local public education…is underfunded. No less than two reports found a massive shortfall in the Foundation Budget’s funding. In 2010 the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education released a report, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept How is the Foundation Budget Working?” finding “Over the 17 years since the Education Reform Act passed, there has been virtually no equalization in spending or state aid between rich districts and poor.” Then in 2015, the “Foundation Budget Review Commission Final Report” was released finding the Foundation Budget is underfunded by more than one billion dollars in areas including English language learning, low income, and special education students as well as health insurance costs. So while the Foundation Budget isn’t meeting its basic obligations under the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act these two authors went on a junket to Singapore last year with a “delegation of 25 Massachusetts educators…to learn from that nation’s success educating students for the 21st century.” LOL! There’s always money to spend on trips but not on resources for students.

  2. Some great ideas here. To bad teacher’s unions insist on status quo. None of the learnings will be implemented unless you get rid of the unions.

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