Since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, American policymakers (the ones who make decisions but never worked in a school) have looked with envy towards the Asian nations that get high test scores. It became a commonplace to complain that American students didn’t work hard enough and there had to be more “accountability” tied to test scores. How many times have we heard that our middling scores on international tests are proof we won’t be “globally competitive” in the future?

The other side of the story is that we have remained the global economic leader despite our ranking on international tests, which ought to make more people wonder whether the international tests tell us anything important about global competitiveness. They may actually reflect a nation’s ability to train its students to take examinations, and nothing more.

Every so often, I see stories that Japan or Korea really wishes its students would cram less and be more  creative. Now it is Singapore that is going in search of Dewey, looking for methods that would awaken student interest and creativity. Getting high test scores is not enough, Singapore’s education leaders are now saying. Something is missing. That something is creativity, critical thinking, engaging activities.

One very interesting point made in the article linked here is the reference to teacher quality. The U.S. has been obsessed with the issue of raising teacher quality, and has decided that the best way to identify it is to evaluate teachers by student test scores. In Singapore, however, raising teacher quality has meant improving teachers’ prestige and working conditions.

Our policymakers can learn something from Singapore.

And we can learn something else from Singapore: We must take care not to crush ingenuity and creativity while calling for “reform.” The willingness to “think differently” may be more important for our future than the ability to reliably sit for exams.