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American Education System vs. Singapore Education System

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.

School Year

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.

Singapore USA
Primary School = 6 yearsElementary School = 6 years (Kindergarten is the first year)
Secondary School = 4 yearsMiddle School = 3 years
Post Secondary = 2 yearsHigh 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.

Parting Thoughts

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.

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  • Poppy

    Lots of work here, Julia! Pretty much a research paper. Clear which track you were in, in school!

    Here in America, I remember what thought I was a national standardized test when I was in elementary school 50 years ago (1960’s). Iowa tests. My scores on that got me into the college prep middle & high schools I attended. I think there is still some version(s) of those types of National tests.

    Different here in America, one’s parents could even “make a phone call” to get them into more academically challenging public school programs. And we know about the private school bribery that happens

    I know some countries in Europe have a style of education similar to Singapore where tests, or even just where you attend school, determine your upper levels of studies- academic or trade vocational

    • Julia

      Yes, I remember taking those in my early elementary years but then those stopped for me. It was all based on my performance in that subject and teacher recommendations that got me into AP classes. The school in SF had ERB tests and the school here uses MAP testing. The US is all over the place and i think it used to be more standardized growing up but now it’s every school district for themselves, I think. When I was in Germany they had a similar system to the Singapore system although from what I hear they’ve moved away from it. Honestly, there are pros and cons. The problem with such a focus on tests is that the teachers teach to the test so the students do well and the teachers can get placed in a better school. The kids end up only wanting to know what they are going to be tested on.

      The flip side is that in the US no one really knows what the expectations are so it’s left up to families to determine what a good education is. *sigh*

  • Marley

    Great intro to the two systems, Julia! My next set of Q’s are: 1. What do the two different school days/weeks look like for students? Do SG kids go to academic classes after school to give additional support just as US kids go to an array of activities based on interest to develop the whole child? 2. What do you see as the top 3-5 values each country is trying to produce in its next generation through their educational system? 3. What are the expectations for an involved SG or US parent? 4. What are the social dynamics layered on top of the systems (ie political, socioeconomic, ethnic, etc.)? 5. How much influence does a SG principal have compared to US principal?

    • Julia

      Great questions! There are so many things to cover on this topic. The short answer is that Singaporean children do as much instruction outside of class as inside but it is all focused on the three Rs for the most part. Extra-curricular activities (sports, arts, etc) are only done as they contribute to the overall points system here. I’m still trying to figure out how the points system works here but it definitely influences what kids do. Honestly, I probably have a lot to say on the subject but I need to really understand how it all works. 🙂 Thanks for the questions!

    • Rebekah

      Hi Marely!
      Im a Singaporean Student studying in Secondary school now. We go to school every 5 days and stay back after school for about 2 days for co curricular activities, a group you have to join better known as CCAs here. CCAs are activities like Band, Sports, choir etc. Attendance will be marked so you cant really drop out. CCAs also give you points you can use to apply to your next school. A typical Singaporean kid goes for about 3 tuition (mostly math and mother tongue) classes which are like intensive academic boot camps that occur once a week. tuition is pretty stressful too because there are monthly tests. On top of that, most of us learn an instrument (cos asian parents) and sometimes a sport. Personally, I learn violin and double bass outside of school and I also have gymnastic lessons.
      I cant really answer your second question regarding the whole country.
      I think expectations are usually higher for a Singaporean parent in terms of academics. Personally, i am in a higher stream so I think for my friends and I, our parents expect A1s. Then again, we have nation wide exams/major exams once a year.
      For your fourth question if i understand what you mean correctly, in our school system, it is compulsory to take Social Studies and History for 10 years (in Primary school and Secondary School). It mainly revolves social and political issues in Singapore and South east asia. At the end of our Primary Schooling we have to take a National Education test to graduate on top of our PSLE.
      I hope that this answers your 1st 2nd and 4th question and Im so sorry for the long message.

      • Julia

        Thank you, Rebekah, for taking the time to write! It sounds like you have a lot going on. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get good answers and to write a blog post but I don’t know enough yet about the Singapore system. I have a couple of relatives who are teachers, so I’ll sit down with them at some point.

  • Joyce

    Julia, this is excellent! Thank you for helping us understand the similarities and differences. Would like to see the answers to Marley’s questions. Plus I would love to have you do an interview with your daughters about a typical day and how they feel about their new experience. If the school allows, it would be great to see some pictures of the school and the layout of a classroom. Great post! We want more, please.

  • 鄞慈

    hey juila! Singaporean here! Quite accurate overall. From my understanding, i have personally taken the US tests for my level and i discovered that the US education system was about 2-3 years behind. The first time i took the US test paper was when I was primary 6 ( 12 y/o ) and the content tested was what i was being tested when i was primary 3-4 ( 9-10 y/o ) this was quite interesting to me! Another thing i want to point out is that Singapore’s system is probably harder due to the fact that we also have to take Chinese as a school subject. As many know — Chinese is one of ( if not the ) hardest languages to learn. And our streaming system also depends on your chinese grades. But i think US focuses more on other school-based activities. Do americans have a fourth subject in elementry too?

    • Julia

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write! I think you are absolutely right that content-wise US schools do not get through the same amount of material and we also don’t have the tuition system that most students take part in here. I’m not sure of all the subjects that are covered in primary school here in SG. The system in the US is a little more free-form in the US in elementary school. It is true that Americans put more emphasis on extra-curriculars like sports and others. Singapore has done an excellent job of making a really high level of education available to their population. That is not the case in the US where it can be hit or miss depending on the local school system and how involved the parents are.

      There’s no question that having Chinese adds a level of difficulty although more and more US students are taking Chinese in the larger cities.

      The interesting thing is that American students seem to enjoy the process of learning and discovering more. Whereas I find students in Singapore don’t really want to do anything education-related outside of school. I find that concerning but wonder if it’s because there is so much pressure in school that children are burned out.

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