Education lessons from abroad: a tale of two countries

opposite approaches yield positive results in singapore, finland

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13 2013 11:42 p.m. MST

Elena Yorgason sits with her daughter Eila Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 to practice her violin.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tan Leng Goh grew up in Singapore and remembers a strict, competitive school system focused on math and science classes built around rote drills and tests. Elena Yorgason grew up in Finland, where music, art and creative play were emphasized, and testing and competition were rare. Both women live in Salt Lake City now, and look at education in the United States through the lens of their past experiences.

Despite stark differences in educational philosophies, the two women's homelands rank near the top in international tests that compare student achievement around the globe. Those same tests reveal mediocre performance by U.S. students. That dichotomy is prompting the U.S. government to look for education ideas from abroad, and Finland and Singapore star on the list of countries being studied.

Begging, borrowing

Singapore and Finland are powerhouses of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which compares higher thinking skills and real-world knowledge for math, science and reading. Singapore also leads scoring on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a subject matter test dominated by east Asian countries.

On the most recent PISA exam (2009), the United States ranked 14th in reading, 21st in science and 30th in mathematics. Results of the 2011 TIMSS, released in December 2012, showed the U.S. improving from previous results, but still just above average among 63 nations — "unacceptable," according to a statement by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Lackluster scores for U.S. students on international achievement tests is considered a dark omen for a nation that wants to remain competitive in the global marketplace, and has prompted education officials to study successful foreign models. Singapore and Finland are favorites because both countries made dramatic reforms to their education systems in recent years that brought spectacular results across their entire student populations. Duncan spoke of this at a 2011 education symposium.

"I wanted to know what the U.S. could learn from the practices of those high-performing and rapidly improving countries," Duncan said. "These top performing nations not only were doing a better job of accelerating achievement and attainment nationwide than America, they also were doing a better job of closing achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students."

Clearly, some reforms that work in smaller, more homogeneous or more prosperous nations can't be easily adapted at a national level in the U.S., Duncan said, "but, to the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow and steal successful practices from other nations, we should do so."

Singapore's success

The success of Tan Leng Goh's homeland, Singapore, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the 1960s, Singapore was a developing nation unable to sustain its economy, smothered by high population growth and unemployment. Schools were merged into a single system with strong, top-down management from the nation's government. Singapore concentrated on producing a skilled labor force by grouping students into "streams" according to their academic ability, as determined by a single test administered at age 12.

Goh, 36, remembers well. Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah, she recalls studying hard as a child for the test that would determine her future. Her mother tutored her at home on math to help her succeed in classes and score well on the "Primary School Leaving Exam."

Goh knew the importance of the PSLE, but wasn't nervous because her parents were "pretty laid-back." Nowadays, though, a lot of stress surrounds the exam, and many families hire private tutors for PSLE preparation, Goh said.

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