The city-state with skyrocketing results on international comparisons is not just selective about teacher candidates, Singapore actually has decided its teaching force is key to its educational success.
The quality of the teaching profession is the focus and result of the coherent, systemic education policy in Singapore. While its small size and Asian culture suggests the U.S. has little to learn from Singapore, the lesson it offers is clear: Improving teacher quality is an ongoing process that requires attention to the personal, financial, and professional learning needs of teachers.
Singapore has a short history — beginning in 1963 when it separated from the United Kingdom as part of Malaysia; two years later, it broke with Malaysia to become its own sovereign city-state. In 1965, average annual per capita income was $350, and its average education attainment was 3rd grade. Today, annual per capita income is over $39,000 and all students complete a minimum of 10 years of education. In that short span, Singapore has rocketed to the top of global education (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2015). It did so by continually improving its policies for preparing, hiring, evaluating, compensating, mentoring, developing, and retaining its teachers. It has responded to market competition, changing expectations for educating students, and to expectations of its teachers. In a 2004 Singapore survey, the teaching profession ranked above medicine and law as a valued profession contributing to society (Shanmugaratnam, 2005).
Singapore is a city-state with a population of 5.5 million, as populous as Wisconsin or Minnesota. The population includes three major ethnic groups: Chinese (75%), Malays (13%), Indians (9%), and others (3%). About 550,000 students and 30,000 teachers attend public primary and secondary schools for grades 1-10. After 10th grade, over 90% of the original primary cohort attend junior colleges, polytechnic schools, institutes of technical education, or private education organizations. Singapore’s schools are open to the children of citizens and permanent residents, with entry on a space-available basis for holders of temporary visas. As a city-state, its government addresses the roles of city, state, and nation (Department of Statistics, 2014).
Teacher selection and training
Unlike the U.S., Singapore has only one teacher preparation program, the National Institute for Education (NIE). Working closely with the Ministry of Education, the NIE develops and refines the curriculum of initial teacher education programs, graduate education programs, and professional development offerings to meet the standards and expectations developed by the ministry and the needs of schools.
Singapore’s students traditionally excelled in math and science assessments but not on the innovation and creativity skills that Singapore recognizes are key drivers for its economy. In 1997, the ministry developed a framework for schools — Thinking Schools, Learning Nation — which began equipping teachers and students to develop 21st-century competencies. This focus has been continued through curriculum frameworks, teacher preparation, and professional development.
NIE receives an average of 16,000 applications for 2,000 openings, making teaching a highly selective profession to enter.
Working with the ministry, NIE identifies annually the number of openings for elementary and secondary education teacher trainees, based on forecasts of teacher retirements and new initiatives planned by the ministry. Students can enter teaching training from Grade 12 through or after college or polytechnic school graduation. Students who apply to fill those slots must be in the top third of their graduating class based on grades, national examinations, and the teacher entrance proficiency exam. But that is not enough. If candidates make the paper review cut, they then are interviewed to determine if they have the passion, commitment, values, willingness to learn, and communication skills to be a good teacher and role model. Not everyone who applies gets an interview, and not everyone who is interviewed is accepted. One of the frequently asked questions on the ministry’s teacher web site is why it is so hard to get into the NIE.
NIE receives an average of 16,000 applications for 2,000 openings, making teaching a highly selective profession. Not only is teaching an honored and desirable profession, but students coming from the secondary school program receive free tuition, fees, and expenses, and a monthly allowance, equivalent to about half of a first-year teacher’s salary. For those who enter teacher preparation at the graduate level, the stipend is equivalent to what they would have made as college graduates in a civil sector job. Tuition fees and stipends must be repaid if the candidate fails to complete the program successfully or leaves the profession before the stipulated period of three to six years. This becomes a powerful motivator for serious commitment to the program. (Butrymowicz, 2014; OECD, 2011).
From entry into the teacher preparation program, each teacher candidate receives enormous support to help him or her succeed. The courses deal with all aspects of teaching from content to pedagogy to multicultural issues, student guidance, and character development. Preservice teachers engage in community service in different communities so they can learn about children living in different circumstances. From early in their training, they are in schools to observe, assist, and learn; they do five-week formative and 10-week summative practicums in schools. NIE professors work closely with teachers and administrators in schools to follow the progress of teacher candidates during their practicums. They provide counseling, coaching, and support.
If a teacher candidate is in danger of failing, NIE provides intensive support. If the teacher candidate fails the practicum the first time, despite the extra support and assistance, he or she may be given a second chance at a different school. But a few teachers each year, less than 1%, also fail the second time around and are counseled out of the profession. Not only have these candidates spent an extra semester in the program, but they must repay the ministry for the tuition and stipends they received, with interest.
As teachers enter the induction period, they become part of the school learning community that is there to support them and help them learn to be successful teachers. A first-year teacher’s workload is only 80% that of an experienced teacher, which is intended to give novices time to plan, observe other teachers, talk with their assigned senior teacher mentor, and meet with their teacher buddy. But the support goes further. New teachers are observed and coached by grade-level chairs, subject-area chairs, and department heads. If a teacher is not performing well, additional support and coaching come into play. Everyone tries to help the new teacher adjust and improve. But lack of improvement, poor attitude, or lack of professionalism is not tolerated. Here, too, the new teacher may be allowed to try at another school, but if another year of working with the teacher has not improved his or her performance, the teacher may be asked to leave the profession. The system believes that it should do its best up front and counsel out those who do not make progress despite support and assistance. Past this milestone, very few teachers are asked to leave and then the causes may be lack of integrity, inappropriate behavior with a student, financial mismanagement, or racial insensitivity (OECD, 2011).
A first-year teacher’s workload is only 80% that of an experienced teacher, to give them time to plan, observe other teachers, talk with their assigned senior teacher mentor, and meet with their teacher buddy.
Singapore’s career management system has developed over time in response to student and teacher needs. Teachers in Singapore will tell you that expectations always have been high for teachers, and they keenly feel the pressure to perform. As the marketplace became more competitive and teachers trained during the 1960s and ’70s started to retire, the Ministry of Education recognized teachers had many more options to work in other fields. Its response was to engage in broad-based consultation with teachers about career and retention issues. As a result, the ministry created the Education Service Professional Development and Career Plan (Edu-Pac) in 2001. Edu-Pac has three major components: performance evaluation, financial rewards and recognition, and career development. The three work as a coherent system for motivating and retaining high-quality teachers, as well as providing opportunities for teachers to choose to remain in the classroom or move into areas of curriculum specialization or education leadership. Edu-Pac provides three clear tracks for teachers:
- Teaching track — Teachers remain in the classroom and advance to Master Teacher;
- Leadership track — Teachers can take on leadership positions in schools and at the Ministry of Education; and
- Specialist track — Teachers join the Ministry of Education and become a “strong core of specialists with deep knowledge and skills in specific areas in education that will break new ground and keep Singapore at the leading edge” (OECD, 2013).
Another key part of Edu-Pac is its Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS). Singapore officials have said EPMS is:
“[C]ompetency-based and defines the knowledge, skills, and professional characteristics appropriate for each track. It is developmental in nature and supports teacher improvement and performance. The process involves performance planning, coaching, and evaluation. In performance planning, the teacher starts the year with a self-assessment and develops goals for teaching, instructional innovations, and improvements at the school, professional development, and personal development. The teacher meets with his/her reporting officer, who is usually the head of a department, for a discussion about setting targets and performance benchmarks. Performance coaching takes place throughout the year, particularly during the formal mid-year review, when the reporting officer meets with the teacher to discuss progress and needs. In the performance evaluation held at the end of the year, the reporting officer conducts the appraisal interview and reviews actual performance against planned performance. The performance grade given influences the annual performance bonus received for the year’s work. During the performance evaluation phase, decisions regarding promotions to the next level are made based on current estimated potential (CEP). The decision about a teacher’s current CEP is made in consultation with senior staff who have worked with the teacher, and is based on observations, discussions with the teacher, evidence of portfolio, and knowledge of the teacher’s contribution to the school and community (OECD, 2013, p. 69).
A second part of the Edu-Pac system is the Continuity, Experience, and Commitment in Teaching (CONNECT) plan. Each year, the education ministry puts S$2,900 to S$4,200 (Singaporean dollars) in each teacher’s CONNECT account. Teachers may withdraw S$4,400 to S$20,000 every three to five years, with the larger amounts allowed closer to retirement. If teachers do not withdraw funds, they receive S$116,800 to S$158,400 upon retirement. This is in addition to the pension program available to all Singapore residents. CONNECT also makes provision for each school to award up to S$3,000 to staff for making significant contributions to the school (Ministry of Education, 2006).
Helping teachers GROW
To further enhance Edu-Pac, the education ministry developed the Growth, Recognition, Opportunities, and Well-being (GROW) Package and GROW 2.0 in response to the needs of younger teachers. GROW enables teachers with children under 12 to teach part-time and take advantage of expanded, half-pay sabbatical opportunities for teachers with at least six years of experience. The leaves can be used to teach in another type of school, study full- or part-time, work on a short-term attachment to another organization, or travel overseas to visit or work in schools. As a further compensation boost focused on retention, the CONNECT program shortened the term for full pay from 40 years to 30 years and increased career deposits by 6%, from S$158,400 to S$168,800 over the 30-year lifetime of the teacher’s career. The Ministry increased the funds for the program and other aspects of the GROW program by S$250 million (Ministry of Education, 2006).
Singapore believes that with enough effort, dedication, support and opportunities, an initially average teacher can make progress on his or her chosen career track.
The third component of the GROW program established a center for teacher development to provide a place for teachers to meet in learning circles, engage in action research or innovative projects, or share ideas about local and international education practice. GROW 2.0 introduced a new salary schedule, basing annual salary raises on performance, potential, and market-wage studies, rather than fixed increments. It also raised performance bonuses (Ministry of Education, 2006, 2007).
As a further support, the ministry announced the TEACH Framework in 2011 to:
- Strengthen Teacher professionalism through the Academy of Singapore Teachers by adding professional learning communities and subject chapters focused on innovation and collaboration;
- Deepen Engagement with teachers by providing a human resources contact and online consultants for schools and teachers;
- Fulfill teachers’ Aspirations by expanding opportunities for further study, including incentives for diploma holders to pursue bachelor’s degrees;
- Enhance teachers’ Career opportunities by adding mid-level leadership positions to schools and leadership and specialist positions to the ministry; and
- Achieve Harmony in work and life by expanding flexible work arrangements and implementing management guidelines at the school level for classroom, cocurricular, and school duties to reduce the long days many teachers work (Ministry of Education, 2011).
The additional investments to enhance the profession were made possible by maintaining class sizes at 30 for primary schools and 40 for secondary schools. This allows Singapore to offer these opportunities and benefits at a lower level of education funding than the U.S. — 3.1% of GDP on education in Singapore vs. 3.7% of GDP in the United States (Ministry of Education, 2013).
Singapore gives all teachers opportunities to attend more than 100 hours of additional training and courses each year. Teachers are expected to use these hours to improve their teaching prowess as well as their content knowledge so that they can do a better job with students. Each school has a staff developer who arranges customized teacher development focused on teacher needs and school goals. With the focus on creativity and innovation, professional development aims to assist teachers in implementing innovative practices and 21st-century skills with current class sizes.
Singapore believes that with enough effort, dedication, support, and opportunities, an initially average teacher can make progress on his or her chosen career track. Classroom teachers who choose the teacher track are actively encouraged to continuously improve their teaching skills and professional capabilities and competencies so they can become accomplished members of the teaching community in their school.
At the 2015 International Teachers’ Summit, Singapore proposed its next set of enhancements. It plans to review its performance management system to be more aligned with the current teacher professional development framework and to enhance teacher ability by developing teacher leader milestone programs for senior, lead, and master teachers (Schleicher, 2015). This continuous reflection and improvement of its teacher quality system makes Singapore a model to consider.
Butrymowicz, S. (2014, February 10). Lessons from abroad: Singapore’s secrets to training world-class teachers. The Hechinger Report. http://bit.ly/1V8iUhZ
Hanushek, E.A. & Woessmann, L. (2015). Universal basic skills: What countries stand to gain. Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Department of Statistics. (2014). Population trends 2014. Singapore, Republic of Singapore: Author.
Ministry of Education. (2006, September 4). MOE unveils $250m plan to boost the teaching profession (Press release). Singapore: Author. http://bit.ly/1Kt7Rgj
Ministry of Education. (2006, November). Empowered to grow, The Teachers’ Digest, 3. Singapore, Republic of Singapore: Author. http://bit.ly/1G0JnHi
Ministry of Education. (2007, December 28). Putting people at the centre of the education enterprise. Singapore, Republic of Singapore: Author. http://bit.ly/1KLmhd8
Ministry of Education. (2011, March). Press release: New TEACH framework to enhance the quality of the teaching force. Singapore, Republic of Singapore: Author. http://bit.ly/1QwhGMb
Ministry of Education. (2013, October 21). Government expenditure on education. Singapore: Author. http://bit.ly/1iuJOEg
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2011). Lessons from PISA for the United States: Strong performers and successful reformers in education. Paris, France: OECD Publishing. http://bit.ly/1NRcNiZ
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2013). Teachers for the 21st century: Using evaluation to improve teaching. Paris, France: Author.
Shanmugaratnam, T. (2005, Aug. 4). Speech at the Teaching Scholarships Presentation Ceremony. Suntec City, Singapore. http://bit.ly/1FrpLRL
Schleicher, A. (2015). Schools for 21st-century learners: Strong leaders, confident teachers, innovative approaches, international summit on the teaching profession. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.
Citation: Sclafani, S.K. (2015). Singapore chooses teachers carefully. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (3), 8-13.