The principal of the school was blunt: “This new technical school is very expensive but much cheaper than a prison.”
Seattle educators traveled to Singapore in October for the third meeting of the Global Cities Education Network. The Asia Society brought us together to study and share our common challenges in public education.
Singapore, like other developed Asian nations, scores at or near the top in international tests. The country is multicultural, has a large proportion of poor immigrants and operates a bilingual school system. Its success is nothing short of stunning and provides lessons for our interminable debates over education reform.
Observers sometimes compare the nation of Singapore to a corporation that serves its citizen shareholders with harsh laws and great social services. The coordination between the economy and the education system is proactive and comprehensive. Youth unemployment is virtually zero, as the graduates of universities, polytechnic colleges, and technical institutes hit the labor market with the content knowledge and skill sets matching the evolving local economy. This success occurs because nearly equal attention goes to the bottom third of students on standardized tests as the top third headed for universities.
We walked through a gleaming new Institute for Technical Education, which fills the role of senior high school but feels much more like a community college. These vocational students worked their way through two-year programs in aviation maintenance (complete with five aircraft parked on campus), videography, electrical work, the food industry and cosmetology, to name a few. Their pride and engagement were genuine.
Singapore and other Asian countries all began by imitating the U.S. education system but have since changed and improved at a far faster rate than we have. They prepare, support and respect their teachers as professionals. Singapore pegs starting teacher salaries with those of engineers. All have very selective university education programs that attract the top third of university students. Education, from preschool to university, is second only to national defense as a government priority. The results: high school graduation rates in the 90th percentiles, digital literacy, and plenty of engineers, scientists and highly skilled tradespeople.
Some aspects of Asia’s education systems are still works in progress. In South Korea, educators are struggling with too much stress on students and too many college graduates. They are looking at a “happiness index” to restore some of the joy of learning and reduce bullying and intense competition. Hong Kong is in the midst of a major reform effort to move away from rote learning and emphasize “liberal studies,” including critical thinking, creativity, democracy and the arts. This shift is considered crucial to Hong Kong’s long term identity and cohesion as a unique and more democratic part of the People’s Republic of China.
We are piloting many of these educational models locally, from skill centers and Aviation High School to improved teacher preparation, but we haven’t reached the scale to transform our systems. Why have these recently poor nations zipped past us in the last 50 years in educational prowess? They have political will, focus and resolve — being resource-poor and living in dangerous neighborhoods, they have had little choice. They are less democratic and more technocratic. The most profound lessons from Asia? Embrace higher standards — Common Core, better preparation and pay for teachers — and give every student an engaging pathway to living-wage employment.
Michael DeBell is serving his second, and final, four-year term on the Seattle School Board. He may be contacted at michael.debell @seattleschools.org.