Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What do they do in Singapore?

From time to time, an exasperated education reformer will bemoan that Singapore is ahead of the United States in student achievement.

The image of a third-world country outperforming our students is supposed to outrage us and spur us on to even greater rigor. If Singapore can make students learn, why can't we? The implication is that there is something wrong with our schools, our teachers and maybe our society.

And, as it turns out, there is something wrong. But it's not that we lack rigor. Louisiana has some of the toughest requirements for students in the nation - we are one of just seven states with a high-stakes test required for graduation. Yet we have not seen great leaps forward in student achievement.

So what's the difference between Louisiana and Singapore? In that bustling Asian tiger, teaching is an honored profession, and teachers are respected as professionals. Teachers are paid on par with engineers and scientists.

As Christian Science Monitor reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo writes here, it's not easy to become a teacher in Singapore:

Only the top third of secondary-school graduates in Singapore can apply for
teacher training. The National Institute of Education winnows that field down
more and pays a living stipend while they learn to teach. Each year, teachers
take an additional 100 hours of paid professional development.

Singapore teachers are highly paid, honored professionals. They even earn a living wage while they are learning to teach.

Naturally, one of the American school administrators interviewed for the story comes away with the wrong lesson: "...we can control university preparation programs [and] some licensure systems."

So when Singapore says, "teachers are highly paid, honored professionals," American administrators hear: "make it harder to be a teacher."

The change we need is bolder and broader than forcing teachers through smaller hoops and over higher hurdles. We don't want our society to look like Singapore's - it is in many ways repressive and authoritarian - but their attitude toward education is impressive.

Are our teachers honored professionals? We like to think so, but we don't pay them very well, and our tightly structured curriculum and reliance on standardized testing reduces them to robots, eliminating the art and sucking the joy out of teaching.

Too many of our schools are crumbling, with broken windows, leaking pipes and poor lighting. Where's the honor in those surroundings?

Our schools should be sources of pride and centers of community activity, but all too often they are bunkers surrounded with razor wire, their entrances bottlenecked by metal detectors and armed guards.

When we really get serious about education, we will shift our emphasis from making life tougher for teachers and students and focus instead on lifting entire communities from the grinding poverty that lies at the bottom of Louisiana's troubles.

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