Singapore's crack student legion Survival: Singapore's highly regimented schools are the world's best because the Asian city-state sees its highly educated population as one of its few natural resources.

Sun Journal

February 27, 1997|By Richard Lee Colvin | Richard Lee Colvin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SINGAPORE -- The 1,000 students of Damai Secondary School hang out in ragged rows, awaiting the ritual that starts every day.

On the dot of 7: 25 a.m., one student shouts, "Attention!" and they snap to. Straight-backed, hands on hearts, they sing the national anthem as the red-and-white flag of Singapore is raised. Only then does Principal James Ong dispatch them with a nine-word command: "You may go back to your classes, squarely now."

Away they go, silently and in single file, a disciplined young army ready to clobber the world in educational achievement.

Last fall, Singapore dominated the 41-nation Third International Math and Science Study, far surpassing even the vaunted schools of Japan and Germany. While other countries have the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Singapore has 210,000 children a year who earn "young scientist" badges for collecting bugs or composing poems with scientific themes.

This is a school system based on two credos. One is very !B American -- competition. And one is nearly unimaginable in the United States -- total government control.

For students, this means high-pressure exams at the end of grades four, six, 10 and 12 that help determine not only what classes they take but, ultimately, whether they will wind up as doctors or cab drivers. For schools, the pressure is to attract the best students, who have their pick of campuses.

Then there is:

A national curriculum. In Singapore, there are road maps for instruction at every level, from tests to teacher training.

Involved parents. That doesn't mean just showing up for back-to-school night. Parents get on waiting lists for the best tutors, who charge $300 a month. They buy two sets of books, to ensure that one is always available for homework. Hundreds pay $300 for the privilege of attending 30 hours of weekend training ++ so they can understand changes in math instruction.

Targeted spending. The Singapore government is spending $1 billion over five years. That will buy computers for every school and equip after-hours centers to serve youngsters who don't have them at home. Singapore is spending even more to reward "senior" teachers and build or upgrade 57 schools.

What everyone in Singapore tells you about education is that it's not merely about learning. Or about serving individual students' needs. It's about survival.

Although Singapore now is the ninth-richest country, its citizens see themselves as geographically and economically vulnerable.

PTC The nation, which gained independence from Britain in 1959, lacks oil, minerals, land to grow rice or even sufficient drinking water. Its natural resources, then, are a deep-water port and a skilled work force.

Those workers have achieved an economic miracle, creating a high-tech hub. Today, 90 percent of Singaporeans own homes.

"We are constantly being drummed with the message that we cannot take our survival for granted," says Tan Teng Wah, principal of a school for 16- to 18-year-olds. "Human nature is such that students will take the path of least resistance."

That's why education is made so competitive, intensifying the value already placed on learning by a dominant Chinese culture.

As in the United States, wealthy parents buy homes near top elementary schools. After primary school, however, it is test scores that determine where you can enroll. Because the country's so small, students can apply to any school. But only those with top scores are accepted by the top-ranked schools.

So obsessed is Singapore with comparisons that the schools are ranked not only on academics but by the percentage of students who are obese -- fitness, too, is national policy.

"I don't think [the United States] is ready for the type of formal, controlled system of Singapore," says Boston College Professor Albert Beaton, who headed the recent study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement that ranked school systems. "The U.S. has to examine its own values and decide whether it wants to be No. 1 in the world that badly."

Singapore does, and trusts the educational marketplace to do the trick. But that puts a school like Damai at a disadvantage.

The problem is that Damai opened just four years ago. Its first class has not graduated 10th grade, when students take the exams that determine whether they continue toward a university. The school thus has no track record of high scores. Until it does, the best students from even its working-class neighborhood will go elsewhere.

To Ong, the principal, the challenge is clear. "Since the first year, I've been trying to make the atmosphere one of urgency," he says. "My kids cannot compare to those at the top schools so I have to push them very hard."

Ong insists that students bow to all adults and address them as "sir" or "ma'am." Boys must keep their ties tied and collars buttoned, though the school has only ceiling fans to combat the equatorial heat. Shirts are tucked in, even during physical education.

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