By Thomas Broderick
Far, far away from you is an island. This island –a bit smaller than New York City — is close to the equator, so it’s always hot and muggy. It’s crowded, too; about 5.5 million people live there. A lot of ethnic groups, customs, and languages mingle, so everyone learns English to get by. Why am I waxing on about an island a minimum 17-hour flight from any point in the U.S.? Well, it’s because that island, aka the Republic of Singapore, produces the best educated high school students in the world.
Yep, Singapore is just one of many countries where the high school students outperform Americans. Now, American high school students are pretty good compared to most of the world, but since we’re the wealthiest country on Earth, it’s a bit embarrassing that we’re lagging behind other countries. What’s the cause? Are American high school students lazy? Are schools underfunded?
Or do students not have enough to do?
In this article, we’ll be investigating how the high school students’ workload has changed in recent decades and how it compares to our Singaporean peers.
Trends in American Education
Long story short, what we know as ‘high school’ didn’t come into being until the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. America suddenly developed an inferiority complex, and legislators pumped billions into education, while parents bought educational toys for their children. Today everything from foreign language instruction to AP courses can all thank their existence to a beeping metal sphere about twice the size of a basketball.
So how does Sputnik’s legacy continue to affect 21st-century students’ workload? From my experiences as a student and teacher, the smarter a student is, the more work and higher expectations are forced upon them. What this means is that high-achieving students like you can go toe-to-toe with your Singaporean counterparts any day of the week.
Here’s the problem. When it comes to students who aren’t high achievers, they aren’t doing much in school and what they are doing isn’t helping them prepare for life’s challenges let alone a standardized test that researchers use to compare different countries’ students. In fact, when I started teaching at an alternative high school, I was shocked by how little work middle-of-the-road and low-achieving students did to graduate.
So, it makes sense then that when policymakers see how low U.S. high school students rank, their first reaction is “The kids are lazy! Pile on the work!”
That’s not the answer because you certainly don’t need more to do to be successful academically. Let’s see what makes a country’s students succeed.
Why Is Singapore so Successful?
Let’s examine a few key facts about the Singaporean education system:
- The country spends only 3% of its GDP on education. (It’s almost 8% in the U.S.)
- There is a central Ministry of Education. (Remember that in the U.S., each state controls its education system.)
- Parents who don’t ensure that their children attend school are charged with a crime.
- The government pays for preschool for children starting at age three.
Let me pause to say how important that last bullet is. Investing in preschool can prevent so many educational and behavioral problems later in life. Also, experienced preschool teachers can identify learning disabilities, ensuring that students receive access to appropriate interventions.
The Singaporean government is doing a lot of effective things to help their students succeed. What about the students? Do they work more, less, or about the same?
Let’s examine one statistic. Singaporean students spend more time on homework than Americans, approximately nine hours per week. You probably spend nine hours per week on homework, too. However, Singaporean high school students suffer from anxiety and feelings of overwork at much higher rates than American students.
I think I see a trend, one that might apply to students in the U.S., Singapore, or any country.
[Amount of Schoolwork] x [Expectations to Succeed] = [Feelings of Overwork]
I’d wager that high achieving American and Singaporean students do the same amount of work, but Singaporean students feel higher stress because compared to the average U.S. student, their government and culture put much more emphasis on academic performance.
To put it another way, overwork can be more perception than actual reality. Did your teacher assign 50 math problems when 10 would be enough to master the content? That’s overwork, plain and simple. But do you have a lot of homework because the specialized honors/AP/IB curriculum moves at a fast pace? That’s necessary. The pressure you or others put on your academic success drains your energy, making something you’re capable of doing feel impossible.
Take it from someone who’s been on both sides of the teacher’s desk: though you may feel like it’s too much, you’re doing what you need to do.
You’re not overworked. In fact, many American high school students don’t do enough, and the work they need may not necessarily be what teachers in today’s classrooms would assign. Preschool and vocational training would go a long way to ensuring that every student works the same amount but performs the right work for them.
If it’s something that Singapore – a country that didn’t exist until 1965 – can achieve, it’s something we can achieve, and more importantly, something American students deserve.