Whoa! This is a big topic but, I’ll do my best to give an overview. Many of you, are either familiar with American education or with Singapore education but you may not know how things work on the other side. I’m still learning but since I get a lot of questions from friends and family on this, I’ll do my best.
Education is a reflection of a country’s history and its values and its ultimate purpose is to socialize its citizens. The US is not Singapore and Singapore is not the US and this makes it difficult to make judgment calls. With that in mind, here is a little background.
In the space of two generations, Singapore grew from a relatively undeveloped nation to a first-world Southeast Asian powerhouse. In the early days, it was important for its citizens to become educated quickly and efficiently. It is also a city-state of 5+ million people on 281 square miles.
The US on the other hand is a country of 3.8 million square miles and 331 million people. In the early years of the US, each city was relatively isolated so each community had to provide its own resources, including schooling. This locally-governed education structure continues to this day with each city and state providing funds for schools with minimal federal government oversight. The US system has always thrived on parent and community involvement with parent associations working closely with teachers and school administration.
Education in Singapore is overseen by the national Ministry of Education (MOE) and consistently ranks as one of the best education systems in the world. Schools are state run with very few exceptions. Private schools like you see in the US are virtually non-existent although there are some hybridized models. Parents must apply for an exemption from the MOE if they choose to home school or send their children to full-time religious schools. These students are still required to meet minimum benchmarks set by the MOE.
American education is more distributed than in Singapore with public, private, parochial and home schooling options available. Public education is free to parents and funded primarily by state and local taxes, with only a small portion of federal taxes going towards education. Private education is funded through tuition paid by the parents. Parochial schools operate like private schools, but tuition is subsidized by the sponsoring church or parish. Home schooling is done at the expense of the parents who typically also provide the instruction. All schools must meet the educational standards of the state in which they operate. National standards exist for schools who wish to receive funding from the Federal Government, however it is up to local governments to decide whether to take advantage of this funding and to adhere to these Federal standards. In practice, these Federal standards are usually a minimum baseline with the most state and local standards exceeding Federal standards.
US schools begin the academic year in August or September, with most schools ending in June. This school year allowed a largely agricultural society to have children home during the busiest farming months. Children were needed to help with planting, harvesting, processing and ensuring that the family would have the necessary food and fuel to last through a long winter.
Singapore is tropical with fairly consistent weather year round. There is very little agriculture so with that in mind, schools begin in January with a four-week break in June and another six week break at the end of the academic year starting in November.
Each system had other breaks and holidays throughout the year as well but for purposes of this post, there are no major differences in the number of days students are in school.
Kindergarten & Preschool
One of the biggest sources of confusion for me when I started talking to Singaporeans was the term, “kindergarten.” It is used and understood differently in the US vs Singapore. In Singapore, Kindergarten, or “Kindy,” is run by private institutions such as faith-based organizations or community groups and is really more similar to the way US preschool education is run.
In the US, Kindergarten is compulsory and required by law. Students are age 5 when they start whereas Singaporean students begin school at age 6.
The number of years a student spends in school in each system is pretty similar, the only real difference being whether Kindergarten is considered compulsory or not. All in all, it’s similar.
|Primary School = 6 years||Elementary School = 6 years (Kindergarten is the first year)|
|Secondary School = 4 years||Middle School = 3 years|
|Post Secondary = 2 years||High School = 4 years|
At the end of each phase of education, Singapore administers a major, national exam. The first of these exams is at the end of Primary 6 called the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam). The results of these exams are used to stream students into different learning tracks and determine what schooling options are available in the next phase of education. This puts a lot of pressure on Primary 6 students because to some extent the results of this exam determine what the rest of your life may look like. (If you do poorly on the exam, there are options to change tracks but my understanding is that it is difficult.) It feels as if the whole country holds its breath while this exam is going on.
Students who do well on the PSLE typically pursue a university track in secondary school and if they continue to do well, they will go in to Singapore’s junior college system which provides pre-university courses. Funnily enough, junior college is a term historically used in the US for two-year vocational schools or community colleges. The term “junior college”, in Singapore, should be understood as the last two years in a US high school.
The more localized education system in America makes it incredibly difficult to administer nation-wide assessments. State and local government systems administer standardized tests but these results are used to measure how well schools are meeting educational standards rather than to stream students by ability. In Elementary School students of all abilities are in the same classroom with the idea that each student has strengths and weaknesses. There is a strong focus on cross-discipline project work where students of different abilities learn to work together and support each other.
During the Middle School years, students are given a bit more independence and classes are more individualized. If a student excels in math, teachers will place them in a higher level math. If a student excels in English language arts, teachers will recommend classes where higher level reading and writing will be required. It is more subjective and fluid than in Singapore, for better or worse.
Students attending US universities will be expected to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) the closest equivalent the US system has to a national standardized test. In addition, university-bound, US students are busy competing in sports, leading campus groups and doing charitable work. US universities look for students that are well-rounded, contribute positively to student life and show leadership skills in addition to academic achievement.
Singapore education focuses on milestone assessments to stream students based on academic ability. This system has earned Singapore a worldwide accolades for being one of the best education systems. US education consistently ranks as one of the worst education systems of all developed nations. There is no doubt that Americans have devalued their education system for a long time and it has become bifurcated. Families with the means and drive will get their children into the schools that best prepare them for university studies. American universities look for academically driven students who excel in other areas as well such as music or sports. These students must be able to bring demonstrable leadership skills and show that they are contributing members of their communities. It is not as quantifiable but in essence, as with many things in the US, presentation and marketing are as important as test scores. All that to say that each system has it’s own pressures and it’s difficult to compare the efficacy of one vs. another. Top students in the Singapore system know exactly what is expected of them early on and their path is set early on. American students don’t have as much pressure in the early years but it ramps up dramatically in the Middle and High School years.
NOTE: In 2024, Singapore will be rolling out changes to the education system to allow students greater flexibility. It will affect how students move into secondary school after the PSLE. It seems to give students a bit more flexibility but I’m not sure how it will practically change. If you are looking for more information on the changes, please refer to this article.