Education leaders from Singapore say their country's top ranking among 41 nations in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study released last fall is not reason to be satisfied with their schools' performance.
Officials from the island nation are eager to find ways to improve their education system by observing schools in the United States--despite this country's mediocre finish in that study, the biggest and broadest ever conducted comparing the math and science performance of 7th and 8th graders around the globe.
A delegation from the Republic of Singapore was in Washington last week to meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and to visit local schools.
"We do not have a monopoly on good ideas," said Wee Heng Tin, Singapore's director of education. "There is a lot we can learn from schools here."
Despite Singaporeans' enviable performance on the TIMSS tests, the country's top educators are seeking ways to challenge their students beyond the rote learning that has prepared them so well for national exams.
"In Singapore, we do a very good job of teaching facts and data, and our students are quite good at reproducing that information on the national test," said Teo Chee Hean, the minister for education. "But we don't do nearly as good a job getting them to think creatively."
The 360-school Singapore education system is tightly run, with teachers following a national curriculum and preparing students for rigorous tests.
The visiting officials said in interviews last week, however, that they are working on ways to encourage innovation, to use technology more efficiently, and to stimulate greater integration among subjects.
Many experts credit Singapore's stellar finish in international comparisons with its national standards and tests. Also adding to the success of its 400,000 students are strong family and societal pressures to do well in school, a stringent code of behavior, and the threat of corporal punishment for even minor infractions.
Although education is not compulsory, most children in the nation of 3 million people attend through high school. Troublemakers are often booted out.
"I don't believe in compulsory education," Mr. Teo said. "You should not have disruptive students in class jeopardizing other students. If they want to be disruptive, they do not belong in school."
--KATHLEEN KENNEDY MANZO