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Lessons from Abroad: Singapore’s secrets to training world-class teachers

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Singapore has been a hot topic in education circles ever since it began to appear near the top of the pack of international assessments in math and science in the mid-90s. The country has been held up as an example of a place where education is being done right: Singapore’s standards were higher and better than ours. Its commitment to education stronger. Its teacher training more rigorous.

This month, I visited the tiny nation to see firsthand just what it’s doing and whether lessons from Singapore are really something the U.S. can replicate. During a week touring schools and talking to students and educators, I had a chance to spend several hours at the National Institute of Education (NIE), the school responsible for training all the country’s teachers. It’s a selective school regarded highly by many in the international education community. But I learned a few things that surprised me:

– The school averages 16,000 applicants for 2,000 slots annually, without bothering to do any outreach to high school students.

Teaching is a sought-after profession in Singapore, so the NIE doesn’t need to send brochures to top students or advertise in schools. It is guaranteed an abundance of good candidates because becoming a teacher is highly prestigious. Admissions staff only look seriously at those in the top third of their class, though, and a competitive interview process weeds out those who might just be interested in the salary the Ministry of Education pays students during their training to become a teacher.

– In 2010, the NIE started a pilot e-portfolio program, which quickly expanded to the entire school. All teacher trainees must collect a sampling of projects and main assignments from each of their classes and write about their philosophy of teaching – and document how that changes as their training goes on. Originally intended as an assessment, the portfolio now has no grades or consequences attached to it. Students must present it to faculty prior to graduating, but NIE administration decided that it was better used as a resource and opportunity for reflection, rather than a high-stakes assessment.

– Once students graduate, they must serve in the classroom for at least three years. In that time, though, they have a lighter workload – about three quarters of what a regular teacher has – and a mentor to help them. They’re also not done with the NIE.

The school offers ongoing training for all teachers and has some courses specifically geared towards beginner teachers. A few are even required by the Ministry of Education for recent grads.

Singapore, of course, is a small, centralized country and not everything that they do can apply to the United States. But there were some marked contrasts—such as the popularity of the teaching profession and the continued relationship between teacher and training program even after they’re in the classroom—that the U.S. could learn from. I’ll be checking in again later this week with more of my observations.

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Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling… See Archive

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