Singapore: A North Star in the Great Teacher Debate

December 19th, 2011

Category: News, Policy and Practice

As Delaware policymakers and teachers struggle with the complexities of introducing student growth measures into the state’s revised teacher evaluation system, DPAS II, I hope we don’t lose sight of the larger goal.  As a state, we are on a journey to create a great teaching profession so that every child in Delaware has an inspired teacher in their classroom.  The DPAS II conversation is simply one step, albeit a complicated one, toward that North Star.

Yet halfway through the pilot year of DPAS II, many reasonable questions persist:  How do we measure the effectiveness of teachers for which there isn’t a commonly used assessment? For tested subjects like math, is the test itself designed appropriately? Is there enough time for principals and others to do all of these evaluations?  

A recent trip to Singapore and Shanghai in October gave me a glimpse of what a coherent teaching profession could look like and helped me put the revisions to our teacher evaluation system in context. 

The trip included 39 government, union, philanthropic, and organizational leaders in education, including Secretary Duncan’s Chief of Staff Joanne Weiss, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, Delaware’s state board chair Terri Quinn Gray, and Vision Network Executive Director Mark Murphy.

Our group represented a healthy mix of what some might call “reformers” and “traditionalists.”  The reformers, like me, tend to focus on the rigor needed to improve the profession, such as increased selectivity in terms of who can become a teacher and more clarity on teacher evaluation.  The traditionalists tend to focus on support, e.g. improved compensation and work conditions.  What we saw in Asia, and in Singapore in particular, suggests that both rigor and support are essential to creating an inspired profession.  For me, this was a wake-up call.

The Singapore system is very rigorous…

  • A clear commitment to recruiting strictly from the top 30 percent of high school graduates and an aggressive interview process that selects only one in eight to go on to  a teacher prep program.
  • A requirement that teachers know their content area. In other words, math teachers teaching math rather than Mandarin. Elementary teachers have to have a major in a core content area like science or language, “education” is not a major.
  • A teacher evaluation system that includes data on students’ academic and character development as well as feedback from administrators, teachers and students with a rating system that falls within a normal distribution. In other words, the majority of teachers receive a “C” with ample feedback, low-performing teachers receive support from master teachers, and high-performing teachers receive a bonus equivalent to three months’ salary.

And marries this rigor with support…

  • Paid coursework for teachers in training and a reasonable stipend allowing them to focus on their studies.
  • Starting salaries equivalent to starting salaries for engineers (note that class sizes of 30-40 students are the ministry’s agreed upon policy tradeoff for these higher salaries).
  • Thoughtful career paths awarding teachers comparable salaries whether they stay in the classroom or move to administration or professional development. Master teacher compensation, for example, is equal to principal compensation. 
  • About 15-25 hours per week for planning with peers and professional development.

So while I agree that there may be important elements of Delaware’s proposed plan that are imperfect, I’d argue not taking this step would create a deeper set of long-term challenges.  Aside from the fact that the state would lose about $13M in federal funding and a good deal of its national credibility, more importantly, it would miss an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a stronger profession.  The system we are moving away from identified 98 percent of our teachers as “effective.”  In that system, identifying excellence, targeting professional development or building strong career paths were virtually impossible. (On a related note, NEA President, Dennis Van Roekel recently produced a helpful three part framework that speaks to a vision of raising the bar in terms of who enters the profession and the career paths they might pursue once in it.  But without a sound way to measure effective teaching, this vision cannot be realized.)

Stepping back, the American system appears to have a series of linked challenges to overcome.  The mixed selectivity of our teacher preparation and hiring, paired with modest salaries (compared to more selective careers) have created a workforce with varied quality that produces mixed results—some excellent, some poor.  This inconsistency has led to more top-down micromanagement, reducing the pool of top applicants that want to work in that environment, thus perpetuating the negative cycle.

In contrast, Singapore’s high selectivity and support on the front end leads to clear academic results (they are a top performer internationally), which leads to more autonomy and creativity in the classroom.  This inspired and rewarding work experience expands the pool of high quality applicants and perpetuates a virtuous cycle of strong performance. 

Translating lessons from Singapore to Delaware will be hard.  Their economy, governance, and culture are different from ours.  But if we really want to make Delaware’s public education among the best in the world, I think we need to adopt a holistic set of strategies that sends a clear signal that our teachers are the foundation of our system.  To attract the best and brightest, we have to engage in both the tough-minded policy work that raises the bar in our training, selection and evaluation processes, and some hard-nosed budgetary tradeoffs to invest in the career paths and supports needed to inspire our strongest applicants. 

Rigor and support: One without the other won’t get us there. 

So, as we continue to work through the uncertainties and stress associated with DPAS II implementation, I hope we can keep our sights on the North Star, creating an inspired place to teach and learn.  Singapore started with far less than our teachers have today and over the last decade they have made their education system among the best in the world through a willingness to engage in an ongoing process they call, “dream, design, and deliver.”  Today, their teachers are known as “nation builders” and the teachers we met genuinely seemed to love their work.  My hope is that Delaware is on a similar path; that our brightest young minds are encouraged to enter the field and that those already in the system are liberated to do the work they dreamed of doing.  Having taught for seven years, I get the fact that this is a monumental shift, but I believe in this state’s ability to work together to solve complex problems.  Moreover, my hope is that our foundation can serve as a resource on this journey, so I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Related Topics: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Paul Herdman



More from: News

Sparking Curiosity and a Love of Teaching: Q&A with Teacher of the Year Cory Hafer

February 6th, 2024

Author: Matt Amis

We’re Hiring: Associate Director of Development

January 9th, 2024

Author: Rodel

We’re Hiring: Research and Policy Fellow

October 30th, 2023

Author: Rodel