Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Q&A with The Daily Riff: Lessons from Singapore

CJ Westerberg, May 9, 2012 9:24 AM


Editor's Note:  Bill Jackson, former math teacher and math helping teacher, provides consulting and teacher training on Singapore or Japanese approaches to mathematics teaching and professional development, and regularly speaks at national and international mathematics conferences. You may be familiar with Jackson's riffs exclusively featured in The Daily Riff which have received wide-spread link-sharing and views primarily about the topics of Math education in America, Singapore Math, education and teacher professional development in Japan and Singapore (see links below post). 

We are featuring a new multi-post series from Jackson's most recent Spring 2012 trip to Singapore during the
International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (ICTLT), and the Ministry of Education (MOE) Excel Fest.   Here are a few of the most popular questions we've received about this topic, which Jackson addresses below. 
  As usual, let us know what you think.  Help us add to the list of questions  . . .   - C.J. Westerberg

"To be fair, U.S. companies often survey teachers
about what they want to see in their products.
This is not the same, however,
as being involved in the educational process."
-Bill Jackson

Lessons from Singapore

Part 3

The Daily RiffYou mention how companies in the US are less apt to consult with educators about educational products.  Is that always a bad thing?
Bill Jackson: I imagine there may be some merit in a purely capitalistic, market-driven approach to designing educational products. The problem is that in the U.S., the true educational experts--teachers--are rarely seriously consulted about anything involving education because the whole system is structured in such a top-down way. Educational policy, for example, is mostly made by politicians, most of whom have little or no educational experience.  To be fair, U.S. companies often survey teachers about what they want to see in their products. This is not the same, however, as being involved in the educational process. In Japan, for example, mathematics textbooks are designed partly based on lesson study. Textbook publishing executives attend many of the large public research lessons and hire experienced lesson study teacher practitioners to incorporate these ideas in their textbooks. The books are extensively piloted and large numbers of teachers are consulted about content, the way topics are introduced and sequenced, and pedagogy. U.S. textbook publishers usually just ask teachers about superficial aspects they would like to see (e.g. Do they want electronic resources? Should it be hardcover or softcover?). I'm sure there are those who may argue differently but this has been my experience after nearly 30 years in education.

TDR: Do you think that if the US Department of Education gets involved with local decisions that this would actually slow innovation and decision-making locally?

Jackson: I think there needs to be some autonomy in order for innovation to take place. Even though all schools in Singapore are essentially public schools (even the relatively few private schools must adhere to ministry guidelines), Singapore schools have a lot of autonomy. What is to be learned and basic policy is decided by the ministry but almost everything else is up to the school. For example, each school chooses its own niche area of focus, usually some aspect of the arts. Some schools are known for innovation and technology, some for science and mathematics, some for sports or the arts, etc. Students can attend any school they wish but priority is given to children whose parents or siblings attended the school and those who live in the neighborhood. In this sense, all schools in Singapore operate much like charter schools in the U.S. (except they cannot exclude students) and in some sense, they have to compete for students. I think this kind of autonomy helps drive innovation in Singapore.

 In the U.S., the Department of Education and state departments of education basically function with a carrot and stick approach--get good test scores get a reward, get poor test scores, get punished, fired, and embarrassed. This mostly hinders innovation for all but the lucky few who live in wealthy districts where the DOE's stay away. I think that the role of federal and state departments of education should be to dictate basic policy and help schools to be innovative by making sure all schools are equally funded, equally equipped, equally staffed, and equally good.

TDR: With Singapore being a much smaller country, would you compare it to being equated more realistically with the state level decision-making?

Jackson: Yes, I would equate it more with state or even large-city level in the U.S. Singapore is about the size of Chicago with about 5 million people. Some may say that educational excellence easy in such a small setting. But wouldn't it be amazing if students in Chicago were scoring at the top of the world? Japan is a country of over 100 million people and they are able to replicate high levels of education across the entire country. One big difference is that in Singapore and Japan all schools are basically equal and provide a high level of education whereas in the U.S., quality of schools is largely a factor of socioeconomic status.

TDRDo you think textbooks are thinner and lighter because the Singapore Ministry of  Education "gets involved" or because of a combination of many other reasons, such as increased collaboration with teachers as to product and resource decision-making (as you had mentioned in your post)?

Jackson: I think it is a combination of factors. First of all, the ministry of education limits the size and cost of the books. Second, there is a focused and concise curriculum with fewer topics taught each year in depth for mastery. This is also dictated by the MOE. But the ministry and schools and teachers work very closely, much more so than in the U.S. Just ask any U.S. teacher when the last time they saw someone from the U.S. DOE or even the state DOE for that matter. Singapore teachers are regularly connected to the DOE. This collaboration influences every aspect of education.

TDR:  The last paragraph in Part 2 talks about how MOE's influence is the reason why textbooks are lighter and more efficient.  However, you end the post by saying that now US textbooks are following the DOE's common core, yet textbooks are still thick and heavy.   Doesn't this argument dispute the point you are making . . . that we should have the federal government involved in the textbook guidelines?

In Singapore the MOE must approve textbooks. In the U.S. textbook publishers can basically make anything they want and claim it is aligned with the Common Core. They are not necessarily "following" the Common Core. It's their interpretation and consists of mostly of rehashed textbook pages moved around to "align." What does "aligned to the Common Core" actually mean in the U.S.? Nothing. Any company can claim it. If the textbooks had to be approved by the USDOE, however, they could look very different. Some states in the U.S. are textbook adoption states in which the textbooks do have to be approved. Perhaps these states will be able to make some headway if they approach this wisely.

TDR: If so, wouldn't this remove this decision-making further from the teachers who are actually teaching (your earlier point)?

Unfortunately systems in the U.S. are not conducive to moving forward productively as there are no mechanisms for testing and evaluating curriculum such as lesson study is used in Japan. If the Common Core were vetted by teachers through something like lesson study, then teachers working together with DOE's could look at the Common Core and new curricula and textbooks with a critical eye in order to make the necessary adjustments and continually improve. Catherine Lewis argues this very eloquently in an Education Week editorial.

Lessons from Singapore Series 2012:
Go to Part 1 - Lessons from Singapore - The Big Questions
Go to Part 2 -  E-Learning from Singapore - Where Teachers are Involved in Product Development
Go to Part 4 -  Technology in Education - Who's in charge?  What are the goals of tech use?
Note: Bill Jackson was also district wide math coach at the Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, one of the top performing districts in the country.  He is also presently the mathematics staff developer for the Franklin Lakes, NJ Public Schools.

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