It’s become a familiar headline: In survey after survey of student achievement, Singapore ranks at or near the top. The US is far down the list, nestled between an emerging nation no one’s ever heard of, and a land filled with nomadic herders.
Of course, Westport is not an average American school district. Now a special partnership is helping our educators learn from Singapore’s best — and vice versa.
A $100,000 Singapore National Institute of Education grant is funding a comparative study of how 2 top-performing school districts — Westport and Hwa Chong — help students prepare for 21st-century life.
Last week, the Westport 2025 Task Force – 40 teachers and administrators working with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills, and solve real-world problems — hosted 5 educators from Hwa Chong. It’s an elite institution: a hybrid public/charter school, combining high school and a junior college, for the top 3% of Singapore’s students.
Next fall, researchers from Singapore and Teachers College will observe math, science, English and social studies teachers at Staples and Hwa Chong. Last week’s visit to Westport laid the groundwork for that partnership.
The 2 days showed there’s common ground between school systems that seem on the surface to be worlds apart — and not just geographically.
“I think we have very similar values,” says Lis Comm, Westport director of secondary education, research and professional development.
“We both talk about 21st-century skills and capacities in terms of communication, creativity and critical thinking. They talk about ’5 minds’: disciplined, ethical, creating, respectful and synthesizing. That’s exactly what we talk about too.”
Comm said the Singapore educators shared ideas like sabbatical research projects, in which teachers and students design week-long mid-year courses for other students around their passions.
Hwa Chong also hosts a yearly convocation of Nobel Prize winners. That might be more difficult for Westport to pull off.
The Singaporeans, meanwhile, were impressed with the way Staples students work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.
“They saw teachers asking thought-provoking questions, and kids responding with multiple interpretations,” Comm says. “The Singapore educators said their teachers could learn about how our students don’t just consume knowledge, but apply it.”
The guests from overseas were treated to a lunch made by Staples culinary students — a course not offered at Hwa Chong. The educators were awed too by the child study, graphic arts, theater, library and radio and TV production facilities and classes, and the prevalence of digital media throughout the school. Each visitor was given a DVD of Staples Players’ recent production of “A Chorus Line.”
“Collaboration is always good, and when you extend it to a top-notch school in another country, that’s amazing,” says Staples English instructor and 2025 task force member Julia McNamee.
“There were so many initiatives at their school that were intriguing. We will get ideas from them, as well as the energy that comes from working with really different ideas.”
McNamee notes that Westport’s “more eclectic mix, from our student population to the US’s broad commitment to human rights and equality of opportunity,” would be part of our contribution to the partnership.
James D’Amico, Westport social studies department head for grades 6-12, adds, “I think we will get some impressive benchmarks to use in our reflections of our educational programs, and lots of ideas about how a school and programs can be structured differently.”
“I think Westport can contribute expertise in how we shape education for individual students, and how students’ ability have choice in their educational experience can energize them to perform in the classroom and in co-curricular activities,” D’Amico adds.
“Both sides feel very happy about this partnership,” Comm says. “There’s a warmth and common understanding on both sides. We feel very comfortable with each other.”