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Singapore Sets the New Gold Standard

By Joseph H. Doenges

Singapore leads the world in student achievement when it comes to international comparisons, and it’s not even close. Ever since 2000, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), based in Paris, has administered a worldwide test known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). It has been administered every three years, the 2015 results being the most current. The target subjects are 15-year-old students throughout the world.
In 2013, Amanda Ripley published The Smartest Kids in the World (1). She used the 2012 PISA results as a basis for comparing student achievement in Finland, South Korea, and Poland with that in the United States. However, she did this by analyzing the lives of three American exchange students in each of those countries rather than by simply grinding through the statistics. In a nutshell, Ripley concluded that academic success in Finland was due primarily to a highly selective process for admission to teacher education programs.
In South Korea, it was primarily the result of extra effort, as students supplemented regular classes with after-school Hagwons. Students in Poland were the beneficiaries of a post-Communist reorganization of the educational system that upgraded teacher quality while focusing on basic skills without the distractions of extracurricular activities. “High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high school football practice in America. There was a big important contest at the end, and the score counted. Their teachers were more serious, highly educated, well trained, and carefully chosen.” (1, p. 191).
Students from Finland, South Korea, and Poland did well on the 2015 test as well, but those from Singapore clearly outperformed the rest of the world in every facet. For science, Singapore was number one, followed by Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei, and Finland. South Korea ranked 11th and Poland 22nd. The U.S. was 25th, tied with Austria and France.
For reading, Singapore was again ranked first, followed by Hong Kong, Canada, Finland, and Ireland. South Korea ranked 7th and Poland 13th. The U.S. was 24th tied, with Chinese Taipei.
For mathematics, Singapore continued with its number one ranking, followed by Hong Kong (China), Macao (China), Chinese Taipei, and Japan. South Korea was 7th, Finland 13th, and Poland 17th. The U.S. and Israel tied at 40th.
This begs the question: What is going on in Singapore to produce such stellar results? How can an equatorial and diverse society of Indians, Chinese, and Malays lead the world in student achievement?
This author has no empirical research data to provide answers. Nevertheless, the target is obvious, and Singapore should be in the spotlight, with educators seeking to search its system for clues to its success. This said, anecdotal observations should not be discounted.
First, Singapore learned from Japan. The Japanese (who ranked second in science and fifth in math in 2015) came out of World War II determined to rebuild their economy on the basis of creative knowledge industries such as cars and electronics.
Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, stated in his memoirs that “after careful study of what it took to be such a knowledge and information centre, we redoubled our emphasis on the teaching of the sciences, mathematics, and computers in all our schools” (2, p. 585).
Second, 80 percent of the permanent population live in subsidized housing units built by the government, most of them as owner-occupiers. Quotas ensure that the mix of Chinese, Indians, and Malays in each unit reflects the ethnic make-up of the country as a whole, a measure designed to preclude the formation of racial enclaves. Consequently, Singapore has virtually no homelessness (3).
Third, Singapore has a healthcare system that covers everyone and is supported politically by both the right and the left. “When the World Health Organization ranked health care systems in 2000, it placed the U.S. 37th in quality; Singapore ranked sixth” (4).
Fourth, Singapore operates with a well-run bureaucracy that promotes efficiency and minimizes white collar crime and corruption.
Finally, almost everyone buys into the culture of high expectations for educational achievement and societal stability. “The values of a culture are revealed by the choices actually made and the sacrifices endured in pursuing some desired goals at the expense of other desired goals” (5, p. 10). Singapore is not likely to qualify for the World Cup in soccer or produce many medal-winning Olympic runners, but nor is this the priority.
If everyone gets a strong dose of math and science in the classroom, if everyone has a stable home for “nesting,” if high-quality healthcare is available to everyone, if the bureaucracy is honest and efficient, and if a culture of high academic expectations exists throughout the educational system, then it is not surprising that Singapore is the gold standard for student achievement.
Joseph H. Doenges is a retired educator who served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Texas public and parochial schools, Department of Defense Schools, and St. John’s International School, Belgium.
(1). Ripley, Amanda, 2013. The Smartest Kids in the World. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.
(2). Yew, Lee Kuan, 2000. From Third World to First: the Singapore Story: 1965-2000. Times Media Private Limited.
(3). The Economist; “Housing in Singapore.” The High Life; July 8, 2017, p. 35–36.
(4). Carroll, Aaron E., and Frakt, Austin; “Health Care System Admired by Both Right and Left.” Austin American-Statesman, October 8, 2017, p. A5, reprinted from the New York Times.
(5). Sowell, Thomas, 1994. Race and Culture. Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

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