Traveling around Asia for most of the past month, I have been struck by the relentless focus on education. It makes sense. Many of these countries have no natural resources, other than their people; making them smarter is the only path for development. China, as always, appears to be moving fastest. When officials there talk about their plans for future growth, they point out that they have increased spending on colleges and universities almost tenfold in the past 10 years. Yale’s president, Richard Levin, notes that Peking University’s two state-of-the-art semiconductor fabrication lines—each employing a different technology—outshine anything in the United States. East Asian countries top virtually every global ranking of students in science and mathematics.
But one thing puzzles me about these oft-made comparisons. I talked to Tharman Shanmugaratnam to understand it better. He’s the minister of Education of Singapore, the country that is No. 1 in the global science and math rankings for schoolchildren. I asked the minister how to explain the fact that even though Singapore’s students do so brilliantly on these tests, when you look at these same students 10 or 20 years later, few of them are worldbeaters anymore. Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics. American kids, by contrast, test much worse in the fourth and eighth grades but seem to do better later in life and in the real world. Why?
“We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.” …
Singapore is now emphasizing factors other than raw testing skills when selecting its top students. But cultures are hard to change. A Singaporean friend recently brought his children back from America and put them in his country’s much-heralded schools. He described the difference. “In the American school, when my son would speak up, he was applauded and encouraged. In Singapore, he’s seen as pushy and weird. The culture of making learning something to love and engage in with gusto is totally absent. Here it is a chore. Work hard, memorize and test well.” He took his child out of the Singapore state school and put him into a private, Western-style one.
Meanwhile, elite prep schools in the U.S. are increasingly emulating the Singapore model, and so are many top universities (like Levin’s) who
recruit buy their students products.