Singapore Crafts Vocational Ed. With Industries in Mind

By Sean Cavanagh — July 14, 2009 7 min read
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Singapore’s success in turning out students with exceptional math and science skills has won praise for the former British colony-turned-international-financial-hub from educators and scholars around the world, the United States included.

But recently, outside observers have become intrigued with another, less discussed feature of Singapore’s education system: its career and technical education programs. Since the 1990s, the country has revamped its trade-oriented academic classes and moved many low-achieving students into high-demand jobs, despite Singapore’s traditionally heavy focus on core academics.

For years, American policymakers have searched for ways to raise the quality of the United States’ career and technical education programs—the refashioned term for vocational education—and make them more relevant to today’s economy.

While some U.S. programs draw praise from industry and school officials, critics say too many fail to weave academically demanding content from mathematics, science, and other subjects into classes covering automotive training, construction, nursing, and other fields. Others say American schools should be giving students interested in specific trades clearer direction on the academic and career-focused classes they should be taking throughout high school.

A student plays the part of a hypoglycemic patient for paramedics in training.

As U.S. officials cope with those challenges, Singapore’s experience could prove instructive, some American education officials suggest, despite the two nations’ obvious educational and cultural differences.

Winning Over Parents

Singaporean society has long placed a heavy emphasis on academic achievement, particularly in subjects such as math, science, and English. Students typically attend at least 10 years of school, with six years of primary school and four or five years of secondary education.

At the end of secondary school, most students choose from three options. Some go to “junior colleges,” a form of preparation for university study. Others attend polytechnic schools, which blend academic and career-oriented studies, also a common precursor to university study. Still others pursue vocational studies, during what American and Singaporean officials say is the equivalent of the U.S. 11th and 12th grades.

Nursing students practice applying an intravenous drip on a medical dummy.

For years, students who could not keep up academically were directed to the vocational route, which was widely regarded by parents as a second- or third-tier option, Singaporean officials say. That began to change in the 1990s, when the government took several steps to overhaul career and technical education. Those efforts focused primarily on the Asian nation’s Institute of Technical Education, the main government-financed center for those studies.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education founded the ITE in 1992, after government officials decided that the nation’s vocational programs were not meeting the needs of its industries, particularly in the nation’s burgeoning technology and service sectors. In the mid-1990s, the government saw a need to “transform and rebrand” the ITE so that it was not regarded as a

place of last resort, said Sabrina Loi, the senior divisional director for corporate services at the institute, in an e-mail.

The school moved to establish stronger ties with industries and overhauled its curriculum. It recruited more skilled lecturers and instructors with expertise in specific fields. In addition, the ITE established committees, made up of industry and government leaders, who provided advice on the training and skills the school’s graduates needed in areas such as chemical and life sciences, design and media, electronics, health care, and mechanical engineering, Ms. Loi said. Many of the ITE’s outdated training campuses and facilities were revamped, culminating with the establishment of a new comprehensive ITE campus in 2005.

At the ITE’s school of hair fashion and design, cosmetology students wash hair. The government wants students to acquire practical, in-demand skills.

In 2007, the ITE received an award for effective government from Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which cited the school’s ability to help low academic achievers acquire skills and move into good-paying jobs.

One factor cited by Singaporean officials in improving their vocational education system would probably be anathema to many U.S. policymakers: Singapore’s schools use “streaming,” a form of tracking students by ability. Low-achieving students are often assigned to a technical track, while those with stronger performance are routed into more academically focused paths.

That model has helped officials set clearer academic and trade-focused expectations within the vocational track, Ms. Loi said. Over time, she added, schools have been allowed to give students greater flexibility to switch streams.

As career-oriented streams became better defined, Singaporean parents and the public began to see vocational programs as offering students “a viable pathway to an equally bright future” compared with their more academically focused peers, Bruce Poh, the director and chief executive officer of the ITE, said in an e-mail.

Singapore revamped its Institute of Technical Education during the 1990s.

The idea of tracking is controversial in the United States, because of fears that it places struggling stu

dents—often from poor and minority backgrounds—in a succession of overly easy classes with little hope of future advancement. American officials who have examined Singapore’s career and technical model say they are not suggesting that streaming or other features be grafted on to U.S. schools. But they see potential to emulate pieces of the Singaporean model.

Guidance Into Careers

In particular, U.S. schools could be giving students who are interested in a specific trade much more guidance, early in high school, on what blend of academic and career-oriented classes to take, said Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of a consortium of state directors of career and technical education programs.

Schools and districts that receive funding under the Perkins Act, which governs the $1.3 billion federal vocational program, are required to offer at least one “program of study,” or academic plan with a career focus that students taking vocational classes can follow, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Video from the ITE.

More of those pathways should be required, and they should be better defined, argued Ms. Green, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career and Technical Education Consortium, in Silver Spring, Md.

“Too often, kids don’t know what they need to follow a postsecondary option until they’re in 11th or 12th grade,” she said.

“Streaming” works in Singapore partly because all students receive a strong grounding in core academic subjects, such as math, early in school, said Alan Ginsburg, the director of policy and program studies at the Education Department. As a result, students enter career-oriented classes with skills that help them in class and on the job, said Mr. Ginsburg, who has studied math curriculum in Singapore. He is also the chairman of the human-resources-development working group of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, an organization that promotes economic development, trade, and investment across Pacific Rim nations.

Too many American students with a strong career focus, by contrast, do not receive sufficient academic content, and thus “never get the skills they need to be employable,” he said.

Business Needs?

One idea for preventing U.S. students with strong career interests from just drifting through high school was suggested in a 2006 report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The report, issued by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, argued that U.S. schools should allow students to choose from several different academic paths, or even pursue a technical degree at a community college, after finishing 10th grade.

That model, like Singapore’s approach, could help keep low-performing students motivated and focused on academic and career goals, said Susan K. Sclafani, a member of the commission who served at the federal Education Department as assistant secretary for vocational and adult education under President George W. Bush.

Ms. Sclafani, who has made numerous visits to Singapore’s ITE program, said she was particularly impressed with its focus on meeting the specific needs of the nation’s businesses. Defining job-market demands in the United States, with its diverse local and regional job-market needs, is more complicated than in an island nation of 4.7 million people, Ms. Sclafani acknowledged. But U.S. state and regional officials can do more to press schools to meet the standards of local industries, she argued.

Federal law encourages recipients of federal money to work with local businesses, but in many cases, Ms. Sclafani said, “it’s not the kind of close collaboration” that’s needed.

For career and technical education programs in the United States to improve their reputation among the public, as Singapore’s have, they will have to convince parents that they are teaching different skills from those of a generation ago—and giving students skills that employers covet, she argued.

“Everyone has a picture of what things were like when they were in school, and the lack of quality of the programs,” Ms. Sclafani said. U.S. schools have to show that “this is not your father’s vocational education program. ... We have the opportunity to showcase exemplars of [what’s] being done very well, so we can change people’s minds.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Singapore Crafts Vocational Ed. With Industries in Mind


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