Education Opinion

Singapore’s City Upon a Hill

By Anthony J. Mullen — April 16, 2010 4 min read
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Someplace near where the pilgrims first landed.

Quite a few critics of the American system of education are kept busy seeking “A City Upon a Hill” on foreign shores. One such country is Singapore. After all, Singaporean students rank 1st in the world in mathematics on the latest TIMSS (U.S. students rank 16th) and Singapore boasts a nation of high performing students and excellent schools. Could Singapore be the City Upon a Hill that Puritan leader John Winthrop described while giving a speech aboard the ship Arbelle en route to the Massachusetts Bat Colony? Maybe. But Winthrop was careful to remind his fellow pilgrims that such a city would be carefully watched by “the eyes of all people” and warned of the accusation of hypocrisy should his weary and seasick flock not practice what was taught in the Good Book.

Singapore will be hosting a major education conference in September and has invited distinguished scholars and teachers from throughout the world to share ideas and presentations. One such distinguished teacher is Susan Elliot, the 2009 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year (I may have pulled the sword from the stone but Susan will always best me as Lancelot did Arthur).

Susan Elliot has spent three decades in education and taught thousands of students. She is bright, articulate, and has a great sense of humor. She teaches social studies and history to mainstream and hearing-impaired students-all in the same classroom. Her unique ability to teach social studies and history to both “regular” and hearing-impaired students in the same classroom is a remarkable display of master teaching. Susan is the perfect educator to help represent America’s teachers and deserves a key to this Asian City Upon a Hill.

Susan was excited about traveling to Singapore and sharing her ideas and experiences about methods that could develop the potential of all students to become independent, self-supporting and contributing members of society. And then came her dismissal.

Once the Singapore education officials discovered that Susan was hearing-impaired, they retracted her invitation. The so-called discovery and subsequent retraction of her invitation was an act of disingenuous statesmanship because the Singapore education officials knew all along that Susan was deaf. The official in charge of inviting and then disinviting Susan attributes the mistake to miscommunication. Wait a minute. Singapore is renowned for its academic prowess; surely the highly educated official could read a simple biography that very clearly noted Susan was hearing-impaired. The Singapore education system may be perched on a higher hill than the American system but something is not quite right.

Susan Elliot sent a few emails to Singaporean education officials, hoping the “miscommunication” was itself a miscommunication and the whole matter an innocent mistake. She had to defend her disability and remind conference officials that America’s teachers and children are a diverse lot.

How did the Singapore officials respond? Susan was wished a successful future but remains persona non grata at the conference.

The Singapore system of education may be the envy of TIMSS groupies, and from a distance the city appears brightly lit in the night sky. But a peek behind the city walls reveals a flawed and ignorant culture of education.

Maybe, just maybe, Americans came in 16th place on the TIMSS because we are willing to carry a much heavier load. A weight gladly held by teachers such as Susan Elliot.

As I glance out at the cold Atlantic Ocean I think about the pilgrims huddled on a small ship, listening to John Winthrop preach about what it takes to create a City Upon a Hill. Singaporean education officials should heed Winthrop’s warning, lest their country be viewed as hypocrites in “the eyes of all people.”

Oh, by the way, if any teacher would like to email the education official who disinvited one of America’s top teachers, please send a message to Ms. Lynn Koh.

Her email is: KOH_Lee_Leng@moe.gov.sg

Great news! The many caring and compassionate teachers and parents of Singapore’s children have made their voice heard. Susan will be going to Singapore!

I would like to thank all the people who wrote to the education officials and helped to get Susan invited to Singapore. Teachers and parents share a universal understanding of right and wrong and have helped right a bad decision. Below is a very sincere email from the conference committee. I thank them for inviting Susan back to their wonderful country.

Dear Dr Lim

Thank you for your feedback.

The withdrawal of our invitation to Ms Susan Elliot was a mistake on our part. It arose from our misunderstanding about the need for interpreters and her professional experience. The chairman of the Organising Committee has since contacted Ms Elliot and spoken to her personally to convey our sincere apologies. We should have clarified these matters before making the decision. Ms Elliot has accepted our apology and the Organising Committee is delighted that she will participate at the Teachers’ Conference in September. We look forward to her contributions in making the Conference a success.

Ms Sucillia Sukiman
Teachers’ Conference 2010 Organising Committee

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.