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.
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."
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.
Her PSLE score landed Goh in Singapore's "express" stream — an accelerated track just below the stream for extremely gifted students and above the "normal" and "technical" student streams. Thereafter, she was educated with students who had scored in the same range she did, at school deemed appropriate to her natural ability, though more testing followed to determine placement within the express stream.
Like others in her stream, Goh was shunted toward math and science study. She earned an electrical engineering degree before choosing to switch to the field of exercise and sports science in adulthood. She is proud of her country's education system and has no regrets.
"Singapore is a very small country, highly urbanized and with no natural resources," Goh said. "We rely on human resources — our brain power. The government puts a lot of emphasis on math and science — a lot more than on music, art and sports."
In Salt Lake City, Goh is pursuing a doctoral degree in exercise and sports science, a degree not available in Singapore. She plans to return there after she completes her studies to teach what she has learned in the U.S.
Finland, Yorgason's homeland, is the only Western nation with consistent high rankings on the PISA test and is intriguing because its education model shuns the intense competition and high-stakes testing inherent in Asian systems, focusing instead on creativity and equal education opportunities for all students.
Finland re-booted a failing education system about 30 years ago, said Amanda Ripley, an education reform researcher. In the 1950s, only 10 percent of Finnish students graduated from high school, Ripley said. The country had a long history of domination by Russia and Sweden at the time, and a troubled economy based on mining and timber.
"Finland's government decided that to survive as a nation, they had to move away from resource extraction and invest in people," said Leslie Winner, who visited Finland and Singapore as part of a U.S. education delegation. Winner is executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a North Carolina philanthropic group.
Finland turned its education system around, creating one that focuses on giving high-quality education opportunities to all students, without regard to socioeconomics or natural ability. That effort includes effective early intervention for students who need extra help and emphasis on teacher quality, an element that also distinguishes Singapore's system.
Yorgason, 36, is a registered dietitian with a master's degree. She said that in Finland, students aren't required to start school until age 7, and there is no push toward early reading. But education starts early — at home for those who choose, and in state-sponsored preschools for the majority.
By tradition, young children are taught to be independent and given a stimulating environment. And almost everyone learns to play a musical instrument and sing, Yorgason said. For her, that meant singing in choirs and becoming an accomplished violinist, a pursuit she treasures.
"That's been the backbone of my work ethic — that I started so early to do music," said Yorgason, who perpetuates Finland's customs by helping her daughter practice her violin lessons.
Traveling with the U.S. delegation that studied Singapore and Finland convinced Winner that the outstanding commonality between the two systems is a focus on teachers.
"There is a conscious effort to raise up the teaching profession," she said. "We need this attitude, too."
Teacher candidates in Singapore are recruited from the academic upper one-third of high school graduation classes and given full tuition and a salary while studying to become teachers. And the beginning pay for teachers is higher than that for medical doctors starting out in their field.
Finland selects its teacher candidate from the top 20 percent of college students based on entrance exam scores and pays for teacher education. Master's degrees are required for teaching, and teachers' starting salaries are consistent with starting salaries for doctors and lawyers. Yorgason said the respect accorded to teachers mirrors that for doctors and lawyers, too.
Other similarities between the education models of Singapore and Finland include cohesive national standards and a reliance on research-based practices backed up by data, Winner said.
For the United States, there are obvious difficulties in trying to adopt education strategies from small countries with less poverty and ethnic diversity and more political cohesiveness and centralization.
"The tradition of local control and local financing is much stronger here than in most top-performing countries and provinces," Duncan said during a symposium speech. "The U.S. federal government does not set national standards. We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum —and in fact we are barred by law from doing so."
Many strategies of top-performing countries can be imported, though. Every top-performing country is using data to mold instruction and improve performance, Duncan said, and that is something the United States can emulate.
Reforms that would be ungainly at the national level could be implemented by individual states, Ripley said, but ethnic diversity in the U.S. is often used as an excuse for discounting that chance of successfully adapting strategies that work in more homogeneous countries. And, she's not buying the excuse.
Not even "tiny New Hampshire, which is 96 percent white," has been able to improve education achievement the way Finland has, Ripley said. "You have to wonder if an individual state could do it, even if we can't make the whole country turn on a dime."
Ripley sees adoption of common core state standards by all but four U.S. states as a hopeful sign. The standards will improve achievement over time, especially in math, through focusing on greater depth of understanding for basic skills, instead of the current emphasis on shallower knowledge of a wider range of skills. Focus on depth, not breadth, is a feature of successful education systems from abroad, including Singapore's and Finland's, Ripley said.
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Ripley's study of successful education systems from abroad has left her convinced of three strategies that could and should be imported to the U.S.:
First, raise the bar for entrance into college programs for teachers, "making the training very serious from the beginning."
Next, put more emphasis on rigorous work in U.S. schools, emphasizing quality over quantity in school assignments.
And last, improve educational equity — targeting more money and better resources toward the lowest performing and most disadvantaged kids.
"But, it's easier to say than to do," she said.