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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

Two Roads to High Performance

Singapore and Finland have created cultures of high performance in their schools. But they took different routes to get there.

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Although the city-state of Singapore and the nation of Finland have comparable numbers of students—560,000 for the former and 580,000 for the latter—Singapore's students attend 350 schools in one city, whereas Finnish students are spread over 4,000 schools in 450 municipalities. Perhaps this explains why Singapore took a centralized approach to education whereas Finland opted for a decentralized approach that places responsibility on local municipalities and individual schools.
Despite differences in geography and education systems, Singapore and Finland have one big thing in common: They are top performers on two international assessments—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Although international examinations can identify high-performing nations, test scores don't tell us what makes them top performers. Instead, we must look at their practices and policies to see how they accomplish their successes. In different ways, both Singapore and Finland have created a culture of high performance in their schools.

Singapore's Centralized Approach

Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia more than 40 years ago. Having few natural resources, the country decided that education would be its route to prosperity. During its brief history, the country has moved from having a citizenry with a 3rd grade education on average to offering universal secondary education. Moreover, it has become the highest-performing nation in mathematics and science as assessed on the TIMSS.
In Singapore, students attend school between the ages of 6 and 16–17; preschool education is available from licensed community-based organizations. Although most students come to school as native speakers of either Mandarin, Malay, or Urdu, they receive all instruction in English and continue to study their home language through secondary school.
Primary school starts in 1st grade with a focus on English, the home language, and mathematics to ensure that students develop the basic academic and personal skills required for success in school. In 3rd grade, students move into a core curriculum that focuses on multiple subjects, with opportunities for problem solving, creativity, project-based work, cocurricular activities, character education, and community service. The goal is to develop each student morally, intellectually, physically, socially, and aesthetically.
Performance on the Primary School Leaving Examination, which students take at the end of 6th grade, determines which secondary school and stream the student will attend—Special/Express, Normal Academic, or Normal Technical. If they need more time to reach the standards for high school graduation, students in the two Normal streams can attend an additional year of secondary school. Singapore's dropout rate in secondary school is less than 3 percent.
Student performance in secondary school determines the options for postsecondary education: technical education, polytechnic education, or junior college. Students who do well in technical education can go on to a polytechnic, and graduates of a polytechnic school may enroll at a university. Students who attend junior college usually go on to a university but may choose a polytechnic to prepare for an applied profession like engineering. Singapore is a meritocracy; parents, students, and school staff know that a child's life options depend on the quality of his or her school preparation.
Teacher and administrator commitment to student success creates the culture of high performance in Singapore. This commitment is a requirement for all prospective teachers as they go through their preparation program. Prospective teachers are recruited from the top third of their graduating class in a highly selective process. In addition to meeting various criteria used to assess applicants, prospective teachers must display a passion to teach and truly believe they can make a difference.
Senior teachers and administrators coach new teachers for several years, and teachers use the same model of coaching and support when working with their own students. Teachers are at school from 7:00 a.m. until after 5:00 p.m.; this gives them time before and after school to work individually with students who require additional support.
The staff evaluation system in Singapore is key to the culture of performance (Sclafani & Lim, 2008). The issue that teachers must address at midyear and the end of the year is not whether they did what the school expected them to do—teach well so their students succeed academically. They must explain what they did above and beyondthat and how they moved closer to achieving their career goals. Teachers in Singapore are entitled to 100 hours annually of professional development opportunities. In addition, they receive funding to pursue independent development opportunities, such as working in a different school in Singapore or abroad, working in the business sector, or engaging in community service. The main criterion for developmental leave is whether it will improve the teacher's professional skills in serving the Singapore education system.
Three education career tracks exist in Singapore—master teacher, content specialist, and leadership. As part of the evaluation system, young teachers receive counseling to help them find the right track. No matter which track they choose, teachers and administrators focus on becoming excellent in their roles and expanding their repertoire of knowledge and skills to take the next steps along their career paths.
The link between teacher evaluation and compensation reinforces the culture of high performance. Everyone in Singapore's education system takes the evaluation process seriously, from the self-assessment at the beginning of the year to the final self-evaluation portfolio and evaluator's narrative at the end of the year. In addition to considering teachers' work with students and parents to improve student performance, the evaluation looks at how teachers improved themselves, their school, and their community. This broad focus encourages collaboration in what otherwise could be a highly competitive system.
Doing well on the evaluation is not just a personal and professional honor; it means higher salaries and performance bonuses of 10–20 percent of annual salaries.
The focus on excellence continues throughout the system. The country uses data from the national examinations administered in grades 6, 10, and 12 to understand where improvements in programs or training are needed. School data on national examinations as well as results on local assessments help individual schools improve performance. Within schools, groups of teachers analyze exam results and student work to improve teaching and learning.

Finland's Decentralized Approach

Ever since the release of the 2000 PISA results, educators across the world have asked what the country is doing to score at the very top of the rankings. Finland also has a smaller range of performance among schools than most other countries do, meaning that students do well no matter which school they attend—a major goal for U.S. school systems. At first, the Finnish Ministry of Education had no idea why its students were so successful. The Finnish PISA 2006 Pages(Center for Educational Development, n.d.) now attribute much of the country's success to its culture of high performance: Well-educated teachers work together at each school to develop effective lessons based on the national standards and focus on the development and success of every student.
Students are required to attend school in Finland from age 7 to 17, or until they finish the comprehensive school curriculum. Students can attend a municipally sponsored program at age 6 if they choose. The focus of the first two years of the comprehensive school is on learning and working skills as well as mastering the basics in literacy and mathematics. In later grades, students pursue the full core curriculum, which includes the two national languages of Swedish and Finnish, foreign languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, history, social studies, physical education, music, visual arts, crafts, home economics, religion and ethics, biology, geography, and environmental studies. The focus on problem solving and creativity continues throughout their studies. In the last two grades, students prepare for careers and further education. The dropout rate for comprehensive schools in Finland is less than 1 percent.
When they complete comprehensive school, students can choose an apprenticeship contract, vocational school, or upper-secondary preparation for polytechnic or university study. More than 95 percent continue their studies. Unlike most U.S. technical programs, vocational schools in Finland provide a rigorous, well-rounded education with a focus on practice. The vocational core curriculum includes courses in the two national languages, a foreign language, mathematics, physics, chemistry, social studies, entrepreneurship and workplace skills, physical and health education, and arts and culture.
Students who successfully complete the vocational program can go directly to work or go on to the polytechnic or the university for further study. The upper-secondary program requires students to go into greater depth to prepare for matriculation exams for the university; students take 75 courses, which are divided among compulsory, specialization, and applied courses. Upper-secondary students may also go on to a polytechnic to prepare for a profession. About 23 percent of Finns have completed a university program.
As in Singapore, teaching in Finland is a highly selective profession, which prospective teachers enter into at the graduate school level. Only 13 percent of applicants for elementary school teaching and 22 percent of applicants for secondary school teaching are accepted into the required two-year master's degree programs. At the content level, programs accept only 47 percent of those applying to be mathematics teachers.
Cooperation, trust, and commitment are the hallmarks of the Finnish education system at every level (Voogt & Kasurinen, 2005). Unlike teachers in Singapore, teachers in Finland have great autonomy at the school and classroom levels. Although all teachers work from the municipal curriculum, which is based on the national standards and developed by teams of highly qualified teachers in the municipality, specific lessons at a given grade level may differ from teacher to teacher within the school. No inspectors visit schools to ensure compliance with external standards. No national examinations are required, although students completing upper secondary take matriculation (college admission) examinations.
Teachers create their own assessments to get feedback on student learning and improve the quality of their teaching; students regularly use feedback from teachers to develop a better understanding of their own knowledge level and to improve. The Finnish National Board of Education (2008) suggests that student self-evaluation is one of the best ways to develop the habits of mind that encourage lifelong learning.
Although teacher evaluation is key to the high-performance culture in Singapore, no formalized national teacher-evaluation process exists in Finland. Instead, school improvement is the result of a school self-evaluation that principals and teachers lead, which takes into account parental feedback and student self-assessment. The National Board of Education randomly evaluates different subjects in each comprehensive school every third year to provide data on school quality and determine needs for curricular improvements at the national level. Schools use this data in their self-evaluations, which lead to positive changes in classroom practice.

Different Approaches, Similar Results

This brief look at two different education systems, both of which produce uniformly high student achievement, may help U.S. educators rethink the battles between centralized and decentralized accountability systems. Given highly qualified teachers who are focused on student learning, both kinds of systems can produce high-performing students.
As with any cross-national comparisons, we need to keep in mind that both Singapore and Finland have different cultures from that of the United States. They also differ in their social philosophies: Singapore is a meritocracy in which all rewards and promotions must be earned, whereas Finland is a welfare society. However, both recognize that all students must have access to free comprehensive education. Both also understand the importance of a well-educated citizenry to a nation's prosperity and well-being and the importance of individual performance in school as the key to personal success. Thus, they have great respect for education and for teachers, those high-performing professionals who work in their schools.

But Can We Change?

We can learn several lessons from Singapore and Finland. Their performance cultures are based on the commitment to developing all students to their fullest potential. Their teachers are highly engaged in the school improvement process, working in teams in the areas of curriculum, professional development, scheduling, school management, community service, and character development. Their education systems value cooperation among teachers as key to ensuring the success of their students, schools, and nations.
In both systems, students are active learners. The first two years of school focus on fundamental concepts in literacy and numeracy as well as on personal skills, such as learning to work with others. Students receive immediate assistance and additional instruction as soon as they show a need for it. This establishes a strong foundation before students tackle the full core curriculum in grades 3 through 10.
These two school systems prepare their students for 21st-century skills: communicating in several languages, identifying and solving problems, taking personal responsibility for one's actions, learning how to learn, working with others, and using a variety of technological tools. Students understand that they must actively engage in their education to maximize their own and their country's success.
Many of these practices already exist in classrooms and schools in the United States. The question we need to answer is this: How can we extend effective teaching and learning to every school and district?
We can begin by studying effective practices and policies in other nations and by more extensively benchmarking our systems against theirs. The process can start with readings. Visit the Singapore Ministry of Education (www.moe.gov.sg) and the Finnish Ministry of Education (www.minedu.fi/OPM/?lang=en) online; check out a wide variety of valuable resources (such as Black & Wiliam, 1998; Fullan, 2007; Hargreaves, Halasz, & Pont, 2007; OECD, 2005; Sclafani & Tucker, 2006); and conduct site visits.
However, the harder part is the serious conversations that must take place among all stakeholders in our communities, states, and nation about our willingness to change our attitudes, policies, and practices to help all children reach their fullest potential in a competitive world.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: Kings College.

Center for Educational Assessment. (n.d.).The Finnish PISA 2006 pages. Helsinki, Finland: University of Helsinki. Available:www.pisa2006.helsinki.fi

Finnish National Board of Education. (2008).Finland and PISA. Helsinki, Finland: Author. Available:www.oph.fi/english/SubPage.asp?path=447,65535

Fullan, M. (2007). Change the terms for teacher learning. Journal of Staff Development, 28(3), 35–36. Available:www.michaelfullan.ca/Articles_07/07_term.pdf

Hargreaves, A., Halasz, G., & Pont, B. (2007, December). School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity improving school leadership. Paris: OECD. Available:www.oecd.org/dataoecd/43/17/39928629.pdf

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2005). Teachers matter: Attracting, developing, and retaining effective teachers. Paris: Author.

Sclafani, S., & Lim, E. (2008). Singapore as a model for teacher development: A paper prepared for the Aspen Institute. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.

Sclafani, S., & Tucker, M. (2006). Teacher compensation: An international review. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Voogt, J., & Kasurinen, H. (2005). Finland: Emphasising development instead of competition and comparison. In Formative assessment: Improving learning in secondary classrooms (pp. 149–162). Paris: OECD/CERI.

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