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August 27, 2009

Getting to Singapore

Will Wilkinson's hilarious take on the liberal penchant for looking abroad for inspiration when the exact same ideas have been examined and rejected here at home got me thinking:

... wait, it gets better! In the next section, “Savings and the Wealth of Nations,” they jump right into singing Singapore’s praises for having “adopted the strategy of saving their way out of poverty.” They go on to explain the Central Provident Fund in glowing terms. Now, the CPF is a system of mandatory savings including mandatory retirement savings. What is that a heckuva lot like? Why, the Bush administration’s plan to “privatize” Social Security! Just one page after dumping on the idea, A&S now love it!

However, they conveniently manage to describe Singapore’s mandatory savings program without mentioning that it finances the retirement and health-care system. Reading A&S, you might think Singapore just forces people to save money and that’s the end of it, though they do hint that it’s funding something. Of Singapore’s unmentioned social insurance system financed by its mentioned system of mandatory personal savings accounts they say:

The system has not been “pay-as-you-go,” and the sums collected have really been invested. Largely because of the CPF, the gross national savings rate has been in the vicinity of 50% for decades.

Not only has this been just terrific for Singapore’s savings rate and rate of economic growth, A&S claim its stunning example has totally transformed China!

[Lee Kuan Yew's] high-saving economy became a model for China, which has copied Singapore’s savings achievement and have been achieving significant economic growth fore decades.
So you might think that it wouldn’t have been a disaster had the U.S. followed Singapore’s example and replaced its “pay-as-you-go” tax and transfer retirement pension system with a system of mandatory personal accounts actually invested in the market. But, no. They hide the dots so the reader can’t connect them. They really do seem to go out of their way to prevent the reader from grasping that the Social Security reform proposal they deride was a mandatory savings program and that the mandatory savings program they praise finances retirement security.

Singapore... exotic, lush landscapes... beautiful, sloe eyed women... why, just attaching the luscious "Singapore" to an idea is the rhetorical equivalent of extra strength Viagra! Suddenly, even outdated, boring pedagogical techniques like repetition and drill spring to life... well, sort of:

The Singapore texts and methods were so effective in College Gardens that the scores of students there on the math computation portion of the standardized Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) rose from the 50th and 60th percentiles to the low 90s in the first 4 years they were used.

I later learned that an evaluation of the pilot program conducted by MCPS found that in the schools where Singapore Math (SM) was being used as a pilot program, students typically outperformed their peers in other district schools. Yet despite these positive results, three of the four pilot schools dropped out of the program after fewer than four years. Why, I wondered. If the county’s own evaluation found benefits from Singapore Math, why not continue using it? In view of America’s disappointing rankings in math and Singapore’s record of success, why wasn’t the Singapore Math program given a serious and extended try?

I think we can all guess where this is going. Can you say, "coriolis effect', boys and girls?

Unlike many American math textbooks, such as Math Thematics, published by Houghton Mifflin, which are thick, multicolored, and multicultural, Singapore’s books are thin and contain only mathematics. There are no graphics (other than occasional cartoons pertaining to the lesson at hand), no spreadsheet problems, and no problems asking students to use a calculator to find the mean number of dogs in a U.S. household. With SM, students are required to show their mathematical work, not explain in essays how they did the problems or how they felt about them. While a single lesson in a U.S. textbook might span two pages and take one class period to go through, a lesson in a Singapore textbook might use five to ten pages and take several days to complete. The Singapore texts contain no narrative explanation of how a procedure or concept works; instead, there are problems and questions accompanied by pictures that provide hints about what is going on. According to the AIR report, the Singapore program “provides rich problem sets that give students many and varied opportunities to apply the concepts they have learned.”

The Road to Singapore, it seems, is broad and paved with good intentions. The trick, it seems, lies in actually getting there:

Ironically, neither Hope nor Crosby reach Singapore in the film. Instead, the fictional island of "Kaigoon" is the primary location.

Perhaps if we placed as much emphasis on substance as we do on hype, we might actually get somewhere.

Posted by Cassandra at August 27, 2009 08:29 AM

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Asking kids to THINK? To reason? To use logic?
Oh the humanity! The pain! Betcha the lesson sticks like glue though.

I am an avowed Saxon, Key To and Jacob's Math user. The Key To series is a LOT like Singapore Math and very thorough.

Posted by: Cricket at August 27, 2009 12:10 PM

Years ago I got into a heated debate with an educator on the many splendors of Singapore math. She was waxing fulsome until I pointed out... "Ummm... isn't this essentially an old fashioned, no frills approach based on repetition and drill? Didn't you guys discard that method as sooooo primitive as to be useless?"

*crickets chirping*

Saxon takes the same approach. One of my sons went from scoring in the 58th percentile to the 90th in one year of Saxon.

Amazing. And how many public schools use it?

*crickets chirping*

God forbid we should do what works.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 27, 2009 12:33 PM

What is that a heckuva lot like? Why, the Bush administration’s plan to “privatize” Social Security! Just one page after dumping on the idea, A&S now love it!

SHHH! Don't tell them, and we might be able to slip it in! :)

Posted by: Grim at August 27, 2009 02:31 PM


Posted by: Cassandra at August 27, 2009 02:39 PM

SHHH! Don't tell them, and we might be able to slip it in!

That never worked on girls *I* dated...

Posted by: BillT at August 27, 2009 03:09 PM

Back when I was in Lower School, equals grade school, we still had old school teachers. What, you might ask, is an old school teacher. Well, they were the ones who did not have to look at the teacher's text answer key to see if the problem you just worked out on the blackboard was correct. Perhaps, if we could resurrect some of those teachers, many more kids could get better grades, and dare I say it, be interested in what they are learning.

Posted by: RIslander at August 27, 2009 03:28 PM

Lots of homeschoolers use Saxon and Singapore. ;)

Posted by: silvermine at August 27, 2009 07:59 PM

I had an old teacher. The Grammarian from Helk.
She was educated at some Ivy League school and you betcha you could diagram a sentence and parse it as well by the time you left 9th grade. There was also a Mr. Gonzales who would not hesitate to flunk any freshman who did not pass his grammar classes, and he required you to stand, state the sentence and parse it. He was a closet reader of Shakespeare.

Mrs. Lukavich and Mr. Gonzales. Salinas High is not the same without them.

Posted by: Cricket at August 27, 2009 09:43 PM

I'm just going to ignore you today, Bill. :)

Posted by: Grim at August 27, 2009 09:46 PM

It does seem that A&S were less than straightforward about exactly what the CPF is. However assuming this 10-year-old write-up is still reasonably accurate, either what Singapore has is not what Bush was proposing or Bush did a lousy job of marketing.

If Bush had been offering a system under which I banked 30% of my salary (20% from me, 10% from my employer); that money was mine not just something promised me by the government; and I got a low but guaranteed rate of return on the whole thing, I would have thought George W. Bush was the smartest man on the face of the planet.

But as I understood the plan, the government would still be taking about 15%; 12% would still go to the (now even more underfunded) Social Security system; and 4% I could invest as I saw fit. Or maybe as the government saw fit - that last part was never very clear to me.

If it was as I saw fit then I figured an awful lot of people were going to lose every dime by investing in something like Enron - and would pitch a fit and demand the government help them out by replacing what they lost. Plus how would we ever do something like means testing if it meant that people who lost their shirts were entitled to more benefits than people who invested prudently? And if it was as the government saw fit then - wow! Imagine the big fight we're currently having over health care reform is occurring in a world where the government gets to decide whether it will allow retirement savings to be invested in big pharma or health insurance companies. Talk about government leverage.

Now Singapore does include the ability to invest some retirement money in riskier ventures but they seem to have discovered back in 1999 that doing so didn't always work out:

From December 1, 1999, CPF members can do less investing in individual shares on their own, but will be encouraged to invest more of their savings through fund managers. The new rule allow a CPF member to invest only 50 percent – not 80 per cent as was the case – of his investible funds in individual stocks. However, there is no limit when the savings are invested in unit trusts, fund management accounts, insurance policies, statutory board bonds and bonds issued and guaranteed by the Government.

One of the objectives of this move is to help reduce the risk exposure of these savings meant for old age needs, as figures show that only about one in five CPF investors mad money last year.

I'd be so on board if we converted Social Security to an enforced savings plan where I got a steady rate of return and the money was mine, mine, mine. But letting people risk their retirement money in the stock market only works if you're absolutely certain the people who lose won't demand the government make their losses good. I never did really believe that and the rolling bailouts of the last year have done nothing to make me change my mind.

Posted by: Elise at August 27, 2009 10:44 PM

Years ago I got into a heated debate with an educator on the many splendors of Singapore math. She was waxing fulsome until I pointed out... "Ummm... isn't this essentially an old fashioned, no frills approach based on repetition and drill? Didn't you guys discard that method as sooooo primitive as to be useless?"

Educators and I occasionally DO get in debates. It was more common when my daughters were in early elementary/kindergarden.

They had - all in all - good teachers, but severelyinfected with the bog-standard NEA attitudes toward private schools, and anyone but certified teachers with teaching degrees being able to teach people well. Mentioning a private school as an option consistently brought rolled eyes and "they're not required to meet state standards." Don't get me started on the list of NEA talking points against "School Choice" plans

When "We don't spend enough" gets brought up - I point out there's little correlation between spending and quality - case in point: How relatively little we spent on the generation of engineers that got us to the moon. Or massive spending increases in states resulting in the money effectively disappearing as their relative quality standing changes much less, even years later.

When "meeting standards" comes up - I point out that what they're required to meet doesn't affect what they DO meet - and more often than not, exceed.

When "certified teachers" comes up, I really have a ball. The navy nuclear power program has been operating for decades on the principle that you can take most normal people and, with a few months training on instruction principles and a few more months experience, turn them into decent teachers.

Nearly EVERY nuke goes back as an instructor. And yes, they're (we're) "smart" - though I could tell you stories about lack of common sense - but teaching is ultimately about being able to communicate and explain ideas, not sheer "smarts."

For people willing to put the time in to do the job, it takes a lot less than a year, much less four years of college, for 80%+ of average people to be decent teachers in a field where they have expertise. Roughly 20% of those can become utterly outstanding teachers.

The only thing needed is dedicating the time to teach, and a little time spent learning how.

Posted by: Darius at August 28, 2009 11:44 AM

The whole idea of the government savings is that supposedly the state invested the money. Social Security was bankrupt in the 1960s as it was raided for Johnson's Great Society.

The idea of a mandate for savings then, isn't new. The idea of keeping government mitts off it is shocking.

I hear you about educators. If I could design my dream school, Fuzzy B and Miss Ladybug would be first on my list.

Posted by: Cricket at August 28, 2009 11:59 AM

Thanks, Cricket! I'm out of the office today, taking the time to drop off my business card at area schools to say "Hey, if you need a sub...". My route of schools to stop at brought me back near the house when I thought I needed a pit stop, so I thought I'd check in right quick...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at August 28, 2009 01:35 PM

Need a bilingual Aerodynamics, Physics of the Atmosphere, Exogenous Factors in Aviation Physiology, Applied Principles of Turbine Engine Operation, and Exterior Ballistics Instructor?

Posted by: BillT at August 28, 2009 03:01 PM

Urk, I hated those math drills. Pages of problems just for the sake of doing pages of problems. I did learn the stuff, though.
When I was a college fresh-critter, I ended up teaching some of my classmates in the advanced English Lit course how to diagram sentences and scan poems. This was a private church college, too.

Woah, people save money but the Feds can't play with it? Isn't that one of the signs of the End Times or something?

Posted by: LittleRed1 at August 28, 2009 03:10 PM