Global Perspectives: An Interview with Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor for Education at Asia Society

Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor for Education at Asia Society, a member of the Center on International Education Benchmarking Advisory Board, and author of A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, spoke with Top of the Class about her latest trips to Singapore and Shanghai, both educational top-performers. While in Singapore and Shanghai, Stewart had the opportunity to visit schools and universities and meet with ministry officials in order to discuss how these systems are tackling challenges such as educational equity and how they plan to continue innovating and evolving to meet the exponential pace of change in the world.  Stewart shares what she learned with Top of the Class.

Top of the Class: Can you broadly outline which of the central features of Singapore’s education system you think have driven their excellent performance?

Stewart: Singapore is clearly a major global success story, having transformed itself from third-world to first-world status in fifty years. I was struck by a number of political and educational policies and practices that have driven the development of this high-performing education system, but let me just mention three.

First, Singapore leaders across the board share a palpable consensus about the centrality of human resources to economic development and the building of a multi-cultural nation.  Recognizing that human resources are their only natural resources, there is an urgent focus on human capital development and education is Singapore’s “core business.”

The strong link between its education and economic development goals is achieved through close communication between the Economic Development Board, the Manpower Ministry, and the Ministry of Education, and by rotation of ministers between departments.  This linkage has made investment in education a central priority, has led to the development of high-quality math and science education and world-class technical education, and has kept education dynamic and open to change rather than being tied to the past.

Second, teacher and principal quality is extremely high. In order to attract the best possible people into teaching, Singapore aligns initial salaries to those of other college graduates like engineers and lawyers, has a high-quality teacher preparation program, has established a set of career paths for teachers and uses a variety of bully pulpits to promote recognition of the value of teaching to the nation. The career paths are rooted in significant professional development and premised on performance as measured by serious multi-faceted evaluations. Highly accomplished teachers can earn as much as a principal. Singapore has also created a system for developing the pipeline of school leaders through early identification and nurturing of talent.

Third, every critical element of the system – from curriculum to assessment, teacher training, financing, student support, and staffing of the Ministry are aligned around the twin goals of excellence and equity.

Top of the Class: As you mentioned, Singapore is now a world leader in technical education for students at the secondary level.  How did they build such a strong vocational system, and how does it function now?

Stewart: In the 1960s and 70s, Singapore’s vocational and technical training programs were focused on quickly providing basic skills to workers who were faced with entering an entirely new and different labor market. Although the government’s priority in education in the 1960s was to expand primary and secondary education, Singapore’s first vocational institute was created in 1964.  At that time, only about 15 percent of students opted for vocational or technical education as opposed to mainstream academic education, as it was not seen as a desirable option. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Singapore created several new vocational institutes as well as an Industrial Training Board (ITB). The ITB became a locus for central oversight, allowing the entire vocational education system to become both centralized and formalized. Singapore also partnered with several multinational corporations in the 1970s to create “Joint Government Training Centres” to directly provide skilled workers to the industries that most needed them. In the 1980s, economic restructuring dictated a change in vocational education, and the Singapore government established a Continuing Education and Training program to re-train and re-skill much of the workforce to meet changing economic needs.

In the early 1990s, the Singapore Economic Development Board decided that in order to attract new kinds of industry to Singapore, they needed a highly skilled workforce specific to these desired fields.  At the same time, they needed to rehabilitate the poor image of vocational and technical education in order to make it an attractive option.  In order to do so, they organized the Institute for Technical Education (ITE) and developed a workforce qualification system, completely revamping the previous vocational/technical curriculum.  They developed courses in new industries and consolidated existing technical colleges into three mega-campuses with physical and technological facilities comparable to the best universities.  All three campuses of ITE offer business, information and communication technology (ICT), and engineering but each campus also has special programs and the west campus, that I visited this time, has a school of hospitality to serve the burgeoning luxury tourism industry.  Every course has close ties to industry including the most modern multinational corporations. This keeps the courses up-to-date, the equipment modern, and internships readily available.  To combat prejudice against less academically inclined students, the ITE carried out a major marketing campaign for its “hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on” type of learning.

Twenty-five percent of students in grades 10-14 are now in the ITE after their ten years of general education.   It is designed to serve the bottom quarter of students in terms of school achievement.  Whereas in the United States, the bottom 25 percent of students drop out of high school, in Singapore, 90 percent of the bottom 25 percent of students graduate from ITE and get jobs and Singapore has the lowest youth unemployment rate in the region.  The ITE has helped Singapore to adapt rapidly to the very open global economy and it now runs internal training programs for companies as well.

Top of the Class: Singapore’s education system was built with an eye always on Singapore’s place in the global economy.  As the economy continues to grow and evolve, what does Singapore plan for the education system going forward?

Stewart: Singapore has built a strong  “academic knowledge transmission” type of education system, characterized by high standards and considerable social mobility. But as Singapore seeks to move from manufacturing to becoming a leader in the global knowledge economy, the challenge is to make its education more student–centered and oriented towards a more holistic range of 21st century outcomes and values, including self-direction, critical thinking, active citizenship and global awareness.

To produce these “future-ready” Singaporeans, the education system is broadening its curriculum to include more emphasis on arts and physical education and on integrating inquiry methods and ICT into schools. The system is also developing a portfolio of schools, each with its own character, and encouraging schools to become centers of innovation.  For example, it has replaced its past centrally directed inspectorate system with a school excellence/self-improvement model based on European experience and on the Malcolm Baldrige awards. At the higher education level, Singapore is both expanding graduate level training in critical fields such as biomedical sciences, information technology and chemical engineering and introducing liberal arts into its undergraduate programs.

Top of the Class: What challenges lie ahead for Singapore?

Stewart: Singapore certainly has its challenges.  For example, a side effect of examination pressure (derived from the importance that the Singapore system places on exam performance) is massive tutoring outside of schools and a level of streaming that many Americans would not agree with.  The examination system maintains high standards but is also a constraint on innovation.  And while Singapore has significantly closed its achievement gaps and focused on bringing up the lowest achievers, there is still a correlation between socio-economic status and achievement (although far less than in many other countries).  But Singapore educators are not resting on their past achievements.  Singapore is now revamping its curriculum, teacher training and assessments to encourage the development of the kind of high-skilled, creative knowledge workers they believe are needed for the 21st century.

Top of the Class: How did your visit to Shanghai compare to your visit to Singapore?

Stewart: Singapore is a relatively small system and you are able to connect to each of the parts of a very well-managed system in a short period of time, but the scale of Shanghai, a city of 22 million people, makes that impossible.  Discussions during this most recent visit to Shanghai focused primarily on their approach to turning around low-performing schools, the teaching profession in China, and how Chinese education is changing to meet the demands of a global knowledge economy.

Top of the Class: Can you give us a brief overview of how Shanghai’s education system has changed in the last 30 years?

Stewart: Shanghai has had forty years of educational expansion and improvement.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was on expanding access rapidly to basic education  (Don’t forget that schools had been closed during the Cultural Revolution).  Then in the 1990s, the focus shifted to quality.  A major curriculum reform effort, piloted in Shanghai and then spread around the country, broadened the curriculum beyond its traditional focus on math and science to include more arts, humanities and languages, and initiated the move towards more active forms of pedagogy.  A major emphasis was also placed on upgrading the quality of teachers and trying to reduce examination pressure.  Shanghai abolished its end-of-primary school examinations and moved to a system of choice among neighborhood schools.  Efforts to close the gap between low- and high-performing schools also began in this period. Since 2000, there has also been a big expansion of higher education opportunities in Shanghai and in 2006, Shanghai began administering the PISA assessment to all 15-year-olds as part of its efforts to encourage a more applied and problem-solving kind of learning.

Top of the Class: Shanghai is at the forefront of addressing educational equity issues in cities in China, a country where educational quality is highly variable.  How are they addressing low-performing schools, particularly given that such a large number of students in Shanghai are the children of migrant workers?

Stewart: Recognizing the huge socio-economic differences in Shanghai, in part due to this enormous migration to the city from rural areas, Shanghai has focused in recent years on improving lower-performing schools.  The essential strategy is to get principals and teachers from high-performing schools working with weaker schools on management, school culture and teaching quality.  This can take a variety of forms.  A principal of a successful school can be asked to manage several schools, not just one.  Schools in a geographic area may be formed into clusters to share teaching resources and best practices.  Under the “empowered management” policy, a high-performing school, including entities outside the Shanghai public system, can receive funds from the Education Commission to improve the management and teaching in a low-performing school.  Teachers from the lower-performing school may spend time observing in the higher-performing school and principals and lead teachers from the high-performing school will spend time each week in the weaker school.  These administrators are granted two-year contracts for approximately $500,000; these are awarded initially by the Commission and may be extended if performance improves.  So far, Shanghai has had three, two-year rounds of such “empowered administration,” involving about 60 weaker schools.  If a school does not improve after this intensive support, the Commission can close or restructure it.

Top of the Class: What do you find interesting about the teaching profession in Shanghai?

Stewart: Teaching is traditionally a respected profession in China but since Shanghai is the major commercial center of China, there is great competition for educated talent.  So to attract high-quality people into teaching, the Education Commission has raised salaries and academic requirements for entering teachers and provides early admission to universities for people who want to teach. Once in schools, there is a career ladder of beginning, middle and senior lead teachers. Shanghai follows the Chinese tradition of apprenticeship in which the schools’ master teachers mentor, observe and meet weekly with newer teachers. All teachers have several open classrooms each year so that other teachers can observe and learn from them. Shanghai also follows the Chinese tradition of teacher research; there is a teaching and research panel of 900 members throughout the city, where senior teachers work on improvement of practice and through which innovations can be disseminated across the system.

Top of the Class: Where does Shanghai go from here?

Stewart: First, let me discuss where China is going overall.  China has a 2020 National Education Plan, which was drafted with online input from millions of people. The Plan aims to make upper secondary education universal; to reduce the gap between richer urban and poorer rural areas and between top and weaker schools; to reduce examination pressure by diversifying the university entrance examination; and to expand higher education enrollment to 40 percent of an age cohort.  It seems possible that in a few years, China might be graduating a higher proportion of a high school cohort than many other countries and, of course, the numbers are immensely larger. Shanghai, which is the leading city in China for education, has its own 2020 plan within this framework, with a   major emphasis on making higher education widely accessible. The Education Commission, which is responsible for higher education as well as elementary and secondary, is therefore focused on the challenges of financing and of faculty recruitment.

Top of the Class: What did you learn on this trip about China’s education challenges?

Stewart: Despite its impressive educational developments, China faces huge challenges as it tries to turn its enormous population from a burden into an asset.  The gap between the poorer rural areas and the increasingly affluent cities is a significant cause of political unrest and the massive migration to the cities poses serious challenges to city school systems. (Not all cities have attempted to integrate migrant students into city schools as Shanghai has). Very large class sizes also make less didactic teaching practices more difficult to achieve.   The national university entrance examination (the “bad master”) is another obstacle, and this university-developed examination is at odds with the goals of curriculum reform to promote creativity and critical thinking.  The government is trying to reduce the influence of the exam by allowing provinces to develop their own and to experiment with allowing some students to enter university by alternate routes.  But the belief in examinations as the guarantor of meritocracy is very strong and this examination cult means that high schools are very exam-focused and that students, while working hard, are spending a great deal of time with tutors on preparation and memorization for exams.  Finally, as the system expands at breakneck speed, there are problems with capacity at every level, from the shortage of English teachers to the lack of well-trained faculty for the new universities.

Top of the Class: Taking into account your many visits to Singapore and Shanghai, what do you think are the highest priority lessons for other nations trying to improve their education systems?

Stewart:  We have to recognize that education policies always need to be adapted to suit different cultural, political and economic contexts, but high-performing countries around the world, which differ significantly on these dimensions, do seem to have some common success factors.

First, the Singapore government has built a highly successful education system by creating a policy infrastructure that drives performance-through high standards, early intervention, and aligned curriculum, instruction, and assessment-and by building the capacity of educators to deliver high-quality education in every school.  While the small size and tightly coupled nature of the education system may make it less relevant to larger countries, Singapore is the size of many small countries, smaller states or provinces in larger countries, and some larger cities, so its practices could be examined through that lens.  These systems could ask themselves in what form they could develop their own version of the long-term vision and leadership that has driven Singapore to the top.

There is a balance in every system between top-down policies and local school autonomy. When systems have weak or highly uneven performance, more centralized policies may be needed to raise standards and reduce inequities, but when systems have higher performance levels and strong capacity at the school level, greater autonomy for school innovation becomes the norm combined with mechanisms for diffusing innovation across schools.

Second, Singapore has built one of the world’s best human resource development systems. Given the centrality of teaching and school leadership to the quality of any education system, a key question for systems wanting to improve is how can different levels of government work together to raise the image, quality, professional training and effectiveness of the teaching profession and of school leadership?

Third, Singapore has leveraged the connection between education and economic development to create jobs, raise education and skill levels and drive per capita GDP to first world levels. And in today’s world, when many jobs can move anywhere there is an internet connection, developing stronger connections between education and economic development, closing the gap between the skills needed for high-wage jobs and the output of the education system, and reimagining technical education for the 21st century as Singapore has done would also seem to be essential to future prosperity.

Shanghai also demonstrates the importance of a serious, long-term vision for education.  And both Singapore and Shanghai have used international benchmarking as a tool for continuous improvement, sending not just policymakers but also principals and teachers to study international best practices   A key question for any country is how can its policies encourage uniformly high standards, commitment to equity, alignment and coherence while also encouraging flexibility for innovation and continuous learning rather than mere adherence to the letter of the law?

Singapore and Shanghai are two strong examples of commitment to large-scale educational improvement in both the short- and long-term, and countries looking to improve various aspects of their own education systems, from vocational and technical training to issues of equity and access, can draw some strong lessons from these two cases.

School Profile: Zhabei No. 8 Middle School, Shanghai

By Vivien Stewart

The Zhabei district of Shanghai is a lower income area with poor educational performance. In 1994, Liu Jinghai became the principal of Zhabei District School No 8, a school that had been among the poorest performing in the district but has now leaped to the head of the pack. Mr. Liu applied a strategy that he called ‘success’ education that he had developed through many years as a researcher.  His approach is based on the observation that low-performing students have no confidence in their ability to succeed, a situation made worse by the examination pressures in schools in China. In addition, teachers in these schools lack belief in their ability to be successful with such students.  His strategy is to offer students a wide range of curricula and extra-curricular activities so that they can find a talent and a passion to increase their confidence; to systematically raise the quality of teaching; and to regularly connect to parents.  This success education program has transformed the school, greatly improving its ranking in the district and increasing the number of secondary school graduates who go on to higher education to 80 percent. The school has subsequently helped to turn around ten other low-performing schools in Shanghai.

I had an opportunity to observe a music class and a math class and to have a discussion with Principal Liu and several teachers and students.  The classes I observed had very well-organized lessons with clear objectives and a variety of classroom activities. Students were intensely focused, with no time wasted, and other teachers were observing the lesson.  Believing that effective teachers have a very clear idea of what they want to teach and how and that all people learn through imitation, the school tries to make the hidden characteristics of good teaching visible to others. The emphasis is on helping younger teachers to develop strong fundamentals of good teaching practice. Once they have mastered the discipline of good lessons, then they can innovate.   New teachers arrive in schools knowing educational theory but not how to deal with the individual needs of students, what points of a lesson to emphasize and how to effectively convey the most difficult concepts.  Each teacher has a mentor teacher who observes classes, helps with the lesson and checks that every student in the class is engaged.   All teachers of a particular subject are part of a teachers’ study group and work together on lesson plans and cross-observe each other’s lessons.

Since 2005, Zhabei School has worked with ten other “weak” or “rural” schools under Shanghai’s “empowered administration” policy.  Under this policy, the successful school receives funds from the Shanghai Education Commission to improve the weaker schools. Believing that the fundamental problem in these schools is that administrators believe their teachers are weak while the teachers believe their students are weak, Zhabei applies its ‘success for all” methods of finding and encouraging students’ different talents and self-confidence and working with teachers to increase the effectiveness of their instruction.  Teachers come to Zhabei Middle School to shadow effective teachers and Zhabei teachers and the principal go to the low-performing school to improve school management, culture and instruction.  Zhabei has also created an E-Learning platform to enable the school to support teachers at a distance. Principal Liu reported that all ten of the schools showed improvement in the first year.

School Profile: Tampines Elementary School, Singapore

By Vivien Stewart

This school is in a working class neighborhood and is the first community school in Singapore, integrated into the community and open to the community after hours. It is one of a portfolio of different types of schools, each with its own character, that Singapore is trying to create. Its mission is that its pupils should be “enriched beyond limits, and loved beyond measure.” The goals of the school-excellence, self-directed learners, physical and aesthetic excellence and creativity-are expressions of the 21st century competencies that Singapore schools are trying to inculcate.  The school employs holistic assessment across seven domains-cognitive, aesthetic, physical, creative, technological, socio-emotional, moral-mental, and leadership. A lot of emphasis was placed on the support of teams of effective teachers and on the need to engage the hearts of learners before engaging their minds.  A black box theatre donated by the community, for example, allowed the use of drama to encourage self-confident speaking in both English and Chinese.