Inspiring a World of Good Through Early-Childhood Education in Singapore

Wheelock was the first foreign specialized institution to work with Singaporean educators and administrators in early-childhood education and has been doing so for a quarter of a century.
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This year, Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent country. This is an occasion to reflect on its remarkable progress over the last half-century, from a poor, underdeveloped, resource-scarce country to an economic dynamo whose per-capita income is the world's third-highest. Singapore today is well known not just as a place to do business but for its headline-grabbing education system, whose students routinely dominate global tests.

Despite the strong test performance at higher grades, the country's leadership understands that to be competitive in today's global economy, its citizens need 21st-century skills like creative problem solving, critical thinking, communication ability and being able to work in diverse teams -- the kinds of things that aren't always measured by standardized tests.

These skills need to be developed early, and a strong foundation in the early years is the way to start.

Early-childhood education is one of the few spots where Singapore is not yet a world leader. In 2012 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore 29th in the world in terms of its early-childhood education system; the United States ranked 24th. Yet the reaction between the two countries could not be starker. What went largely unremarked in the U.S. became an urgent national call to action in Singapore. As a result, the government has announced new funding initiatives for subsidies for parents and childcare centers, new sources of scholarship money for teachers, and the creation of new preschools and kindergartens.

In the United States, a few progressive politicians like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio see the importance of early-childhood education and push for it. Singapore, on the other hand, is moving full-steam ahead in raising expenditures in the sector with little of the opposition we see in the U.S., because they see how crucial it is to their future economic prospects.

One of the reasons Singapore has succeeded is that its leaders understand that education is the best means of achieving social mobility and growth in this highly income-stratified and ethnically diverse society. More importantly, there is a broad consensus and willingness to invest in it. Twenty percent of government expenditure goes to education, a far higher percentage than the average among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

This focus on education comes from a deeply held societal belief that because Singapore is tiny and has few natural resources (it even has to import 30 percent of its water supply), the only way for it to achieve a high level of wealth and development is through its human capital. Because the population is small, Singapore understands that it cannot afford to waste the potential of any of its citizens, a lesson that many politicians in the U.S. fail to grasp. In my travels to Singapore, I am constantly amazed by the foresightedness of its leaders to ensure that the country and its people have the right skills to stay ahead.

Wheelock College is leading in the 21st-century-skills approach within the early-childhood education field in partnership with the Singapore Ministry of Education and its newest national university, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). Wheelock was the first foreign specialized institution to work with Singaporean educators and administrators in early-childhood education and has been doing so for a quarter of a century. Relationships built in the early years of Wheelock College's presence in Singapore have led to a deep understanding of the social, political, and cultural factors that influence the design of early education in diverse settings. The rapid and continuous expansion of the need for high-quality childcare centers has afforded Wheelock the opportunity to design and deliver innovative programs to meet the changing needs for professional development in the early-childhood field in Singapore. Now with nearly 4,000 alumni, Wheelock's impact on early education in Singapore continues to expand.

As Singapore continues to invest in early-childhood education to build a strong workforce of highly trained educators, its international reputation in this field will grow, but more importantly, it will set the stage for the upward economic trajectory begun 50 years ago. Just as Singapore used its low ranking as a national call to action, the United States needs more national action and collaboration for a countrywide wake-up call to strengthen the sector. President Obama, in his recent State of the Union message, expanded his call for support for the early years, adding high-quality child care -- "not a nice-to-have" but "a must-have" -- to his previous focus on universal pre-K education. The dynamic economies of the 21st century, such as Singapore, will be those with the best-trained citizens, and we would do well to heed this call and prepare all our children for success.

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