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School CP - March 1997

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The Straits Times, Singapore, 9 March 1997

Clinton to US schools: Catch up with Singapore


The school system here was the subject of an extensive news feature in the Los Angeles Times recently, spread over a column on the front page and two inside pages. In the article, Why Tiny Singapore Is At The Top Of The Class, education writer RICHARD LEE COLVIN, looks at the system through American eyes and makes the point that competition and government control are behind the success of schools here.

SLOUCHING as only adolescents can, the 1,000 students of Damai Secondary School hang out in ragged rows, awaiting the ritual that starts every day.

"Keep still," principal James Ong urges them over a loudspeaker as they assemble in front of the school. "Hurry up!"

On the dot of 7.25 am, one student shouts, "Attention!" and they snap to. Straight-backed, hands on hearts, they sing the national anthem as the red-and-white flag of Singapore is raised.

Only then does Mr Ong dispatch them with a nine-word command: "You may go back to your classes, squarely now."

Away they go, silently and in single file, a disciplined young army ready to clobber the world in educational achievement.

Last year, this tiny island dominated the 41-nation Third International Maths and Science Study, far surpassing even the vaunted schools of Japan and Germany.

Other countries have the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Singapore has 210,000 children a year who earn "Young Scientist" badges for collecting bugs or composing poems with scientific themes.

President Bill Clinton has now challenged American schools to match the scores of Singapore.

The United States is only so-so internationally -- in the middle of the pack in science and in the bottom half in mathematics.

Mr Clinton has used that showing as a rallying point for national academic standards and tests, declaring that a world-class school system is as much an element of national security as tanks or bombers.

So if the US were to crib from the valedictorian of nations, what would it find?

A school system based on two credos: one very American -- competition, and one unimaginable in the US -- total government control.

For students, this means high-pressure examinations at the end of Grades 4, 6, 10 and 12 (equivalent to Primary 4 and 6, and Secondary 4 and the second year of junior college) that help determine not only what classes they take but, ultimately, whether they will wind up as doctors or taxi drivers.

For schools, the pressure is to attract the best students -- who have their pick of campuses.

Then there is:

  • A national curriculum: In Singapore, there are road maps for instruction at every level, moulding tests, tutoring and teacher training.

    The documents are amazingly concise -- eighth-grade maths is covered in 10 pages, listing 19 topics within algebra, geometry, etc. (Students, for example, must be able to calculate the "volume and surface area of a sphere, pyramid and cone.")

    By contrast, American eighth-graders race through 30 or more topics, learning them so superficially that they have to be repeated over and over.

  • Involved parents: In Singapore, that does not mean just showing up for Back to School Night. Parents get on waiting lists for the best tutors, who charge US$300 (S$420) a month.

    They buy two sets of books, to ensure that one is always available for homework. Hundreds pay US$300 for the privilege of attending 30 hours of weekend training so they can understand changes in maths instruction.

  • Targeted spending: While California Governor Pete Wilson made a splash last month by announcing a US$50-million down payment on a state computers-in-the-schools drive, in Singapore, the Government is spending US$1 billion over five years -- in a school system with fewer pupils than Los Angeles'.

    That will buy computers for every school and equip after-hours centres to serve youngsters who do not have them at home. Singapore is spending even more to reward "senior" teachers and to build or upgrade 57 schools.

When Americans hear of such success stories elsewhere, they are characteristically wary. Intrigued, sure. Then, "Yeah, but ..."

Yeah, but Singapore is so small, only three million people.

Yeah, but Singapore is an insular society, without waves of immigrants filling schools with kids who do not speak the language.

Yeah, but ... remember the caning?

THE level of discipline in Singapore's schools, as in its society, would be unthinkable in the US, as shown in 1994, when American teenager Michael Fay's hide was tanned for vandalising cars.

Although some envied Singapore's response, most in the US made Fay a cause celebre, a victim of an over-reacting oppressive nation.

Criticism like that bothers Singapore not one iota.

A glass case at the entrance to the Damai school displays news stories about the Fay incident -- along with a piece of cane.

Principal Ong has his own in his office. You do not have to be caught fighting to sample it. Merely disrespecting a teacher will do. Mum will not get a call first.

"We do not seek permission from parents," Mr Ong says matter-of-factly. "We will cane first and inform you later. Parents must trust us to give the child a good education. We have the welfare of the children in mind."

What everyone in Singapore tells you about education is that it is not merely about learning, nor about serving individual students' needs. It is about survival.

Although the Republic is now the ninth-richest country on Earth, its citizens see themselves as geographically and economically vulnerable.

The nation -- which gained independence from Britain in 1959 -- lacks oil, minerals, land to grow rice or even sufficient drinking water. Its natural resources, then, are a deep-water port and a skilled workforce.

Those workers have achieved an economic miracle, creating a high-tech hub. Today, 90 per cent of Singaporeans own homes.


-- Los Angeles Times

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