Supersize My Education? Not in Singapore

Boarding my plane from Singapore after a fascinating, whirlwind reacquaintance with that small nation’s remarkable education system, I encountered this Wall Street Journal headline: “Education Slows in U.S., Threatening Prosperity.” Reading on, I learned that Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have performed a provocative—and seemingly alarming—set of calculations to answer the question: How much more education are Americans getting than their parents did?

There’s still an increment, it turns out, but it’s been shrinking: from two years more schooling (by age thirty) for those born in 1955 down to just eight months more for those born in 1980. The implication, quoth the Journal reporters: “Without better educated Americans, economists say, the U.S. won’t be able to maintain high-wage jobs and rising living standards in a competitive global economy.”

This isn’t exactly news. Nor is the Goldin-Katz analysis the first time we have observed that the U.S. is no longer leading the planet when it comes to the quantity of education that its population receives. But is more education—more hours and days, more years and degrees—the cure for what ails us? Or are we already pigging out on the educational equivalent of fast food—fattening but not nutritious—and will supersizing our portions just make matters worse?

If we accept the Goldin-Katz view of what’s wrong with U.S. education, we will inevitably demand more preschool, more full-day Kindergarten, more high school graduations, more college attendance, more college and postgraduate degrees, etc. Supersizing is the standard American response. Indeed, it’s already on the election-year menu with both parties demanding that student-loan interest rates be made to stay low so that more people can afford more tertiary education. Not much talk about quality, though.

Singapore is one of those places that’s been going a mile a minute in boosting both the quality and the quantity of formal education that its population receives. For example, the proportion of Singaporeans aged twenty-five to thirty-nine that completed secondary school (meaning tenth grade) jumped from 25 percent in 1980 to 96 percent in 2010. At the same time, Singapore students beat almost everyone else in the world on international assessments of math and science knowledge.

To an American, however, it’s surprising how little rush there is to supersize Singaporean education. Kindergarten is optional. (The primary schools start at age six or seven.) And only about one in four young Singaporeans currently qualifies for the “junior colleges” (basically grades eleven and twelve) that are the usual path into the country’s four universities. Government policy is headed toward placing 30 percent of the age cohort in public universities; for now, as many as 40 percent of secondary graduates head into career-oriented “polytechnics” that resemble the best of American community colleges and some 20 percent attend the Institute of Technical Education, which emphasizes “hands-on” training.

There is, to be sure, public pressure to increase the number who can enter Singapore’s universities—and some private and non-Singaporean institutions have opened to accommodate some of that demand. (Other students travel overseas for their tertiary education.) But basically nobody is saying that every young person should go to university. And remember: this in an education-obsessed country with no other resources to speak of save its highly skilled populace.

Nor are they going to take the easy path (as England and Hong Kong have done in recent decades and as the U.S. started to do long ago) and put fancier labels onto existing institutions. They are not, for example, going to pretend that their polytechnics are really universities, as we have done with hundreds of ex-teachers colleges and quondam “normal schools.” They regard that kind of maneuver as both an affront to quality control at the university level and damaging to the real-world job-preparation work that the polytechnics specialize in.

The United States, of course, tends to reject both the benefits and the detriments of Singapore-style central planning in the education space, at least when it comes to planning from Washington. But the new Goldin-Katz data, combined with OECD trend data, make clear that our system (or non-system) isn’t doing a very good job of propelling more people onward to get more education than their parents got. And we know from plenty of other data (TIMSS, PISA, etc.) that the quality of much of what they’re getting isn’t so great, either, especially when viewed in international perspective.

Any number of reform initiatives are seeking to tackle one or the other problem. Some are focused on raising academic standards, others on keeping more people in the education system longer and seeing that they emerge with credentials. Some insist that the two goals are complimentary—and the mantra that “everyone should emerge from high school both college and career-ready” tends to blur the distinction and terminate the discussion.

But what will we do when we face hard trade-offs, such as the likely discovery that higher graduation standards will lead to a higher failure (and dropout) rate? Our track record in this regard leaves much to be desired. Even much-envied Massachusetts, which has done a commendable job of getting almost all who stay in school over the medium-high bar set by MCAS, has worrisome dropout rates, particularly among minority youngsters, and has been loath to raise its high school exit-bar to the level of true college readiness.

Are our presidential candidates crazy to yammer about cheap loans to make college more affordable for all? I understand that nobody (except maybe Rick Santorum) is going to campaign for the White House by urging fewer young Americans to go to college. But if more do in fact go and stay, will they really be getting a good education there? Or just a bigger bag of fries? What if, instead, more of them simply emerged career ready from our secondary schools, which already last two years longer than the norm in Singapore? Wouldn’t a whole lot of time and money be saved and a lot of heartache and dashed aspirations avoided?

I don’t expect these dilemmas to be resolved in Washington—though it would be fascinating to hear them discussed by Messrs. Obama and Romney in an upcoming debate. But it’s something our states had better come to grips with—including how they finance their P-20 education systems. It’s clear that rising tertiary education costs paid by consumers—and heavy debt burdens on many who enter and persist in college—are part of the problem. But only part. Maybe more attention to quality would do greater good.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This post originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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