What are the ingredients of a successful school system? Getting the recipe right is important. In presenting his education agenda, President Barack Obama has said, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its people."
For now, educators suggest, that distinction lies half a world away from Washington, D.C. - in Singapore.
On a hot, humid morning in this small island nation, Mike Smith enters a crowded third grade classroom. There's no air conditioner, just open windows and some fans. The entire class of 36 9-year-olds stands and greets him politely.
Smith is senior counselor to the U.S. Secretary of Education. The class is at East View Primary School in a low-income, densely populated neighborhood of Singapore.
Smith is struck by the number of students and tells Principal Veronica Tay, "In the U.S., you would never see a class this large!" She assures him it's actually smaller than the typical class at the school.
Despite the number and the neighborhood, East View is up for a national excellence award. Singapore itself is well-known for turning out students who outscore those in most other countries on international science and math tests.
The secret to Singapore's educational success
That's what brought Mike Smith here - along with education officials from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Canada, and Sweden. They all want to know one thing: what makes Singapore's education system work so well?
Make that two things: how does Singapore do it, and can we do it, too?
Singapore's Minister of Education, Dr. Ng Eng Hen, says "The nuts and bolts of a good educational system are really quite simple, and quite straightforward and some would say it's a 'no-brainer.'"
Ng isn't being glib. He says even though everyone knows a good education system when they see one; jumping the hurdles to create it takes stamina and support. So he organized this first-ever International Education Roundtable to start talking strategy.
"When you're thinking of policies and directions for the ministries, sometimes we are greatly in need of sounding boards," he explains. "How do you do this right? Which is the direction you take? What resources are necessary?"
A focus on the students
The education officials at the forum quickly found common ground in discussions about recruiting and keeping good teachers, improving leadership training for principals, and using technology creatively and effectively toward the goal of improving student achievement.
That's one area where Singapore shines.
The visitors were especially awed by a nursing class at the Institute of Technical Education, where students practiced on a computerized dummy that responded like a real person. Sweden's education minister said she'd like vocational schools in her country to include this technology.
Mike Smith was struck by Singapore's ability to keep reforms centered on the real goals of education. "If you have serious, steady leadership, if you're focused on students' well being, on students' achievement, and you pay real attention to that, you'll get a system that's continuously improving," he noted. "That's very important and just needs to happen more often in the United States, we need to create those conditions under which it can happen."
That said, he observed that reform is a lot simpler to enact in Singapore.
A bumpier road to reform
One political party has ruled the island nation for half a century. On one hand, that's led to strong central control; on the other, it has protected education policies from the volatility of government change.
Dave Hancock, the education minister of Alberta, Canada, complained that in his country, politics, rather than political leadership, is a major impediment to thoughtful reform. "We get elected to think big picture and long term, but our 'report cards' are often based on how many potholes are filled. That's the politics that we need to keep out of the system."
Singapore is also a lot smaller than most countries. The entire population is 4.5 million. That's 2-million less than the number of public school students in the state of California.
The layers of education bureaucracy in the United States are also oversized. Mike Smith says you can't just transfer reform from one country to another. "If we borrow ideas from Singapore, we need to understand that we're borrowing them into a different system and a different way of doing business, so they may not be able to be picked up easily and moved."
The American education official suggests it would be easy to dismiss Singapore because of its size, and the different political, economic and social structures.
Still, he says, there is a lesson for the United States. Serious school reform has to be focused on what will improve student achievement and well-being. That's a goal that crosses all borders.