Far from an advocate of minimalism or the Lacedaemonian style of discipline, I am often struck by how schools elsewhere in the world can still retain excellent educations on so little a budget.
I admit, I have an ulterior agenda, one that pertains to immigration policy. I often hear the justification for stricter immigration controls (that is to repress even legal migrants) because additional migrants are overloading the resources of school systems. My answer is that a lot of districts have no idea how to manage low-income students or to construct low-cost schools.
Low-cost schools with excellent education, if you ask me, is a lot better than the alternative -- buildings that look like their high-income counterparts but the teaching does not. Schools in Singapore, ranging from the government-run "neighbourhood schools" to the independently-run distinguished names share some common design characteristics. They are not shamed by bare concrete floors; they are easy to spray-wash. I estimate that my primary school's (FMPS) current building cost at maximum $12 million SGD in todays' dollars, with a capacity of 1800 students. Contrast this with my high school district in Maine, which a few years ago wanted to take out a $57 million USD bond to renovate a high school that sees a student population between 900-1150 students. Where does the money go? I mean, Singapore, materials have to be imported from overseas; I imagine that cost of materials in New England is considerably cheaper. On top of this, FMPS managed to build several koi ponds and other feng-shui pleasing things in the courtyards -- a delight at every recess.
But the physical space is really a minute fraction of overall cost.
Is it the structure of the classes? From ages six to sixteen, schools do not try to imitate universities, though there are differentiated teachers even at primary one. So you don't have a single first-grade teacher trying to cover mother tongue languages, English, math and social/civics. But at the same time you're not shuffling kids from room to room in an imitation of the college environment. Yet I imagine a lot of American schools have this too. One thing my school did was to have morning and afternoon sessions -- from 7:50 am to 12:50 pm, and from 1:15 pm to 6:15 pm (with a 30-minute assembly before each session), so each classroom was effectively used by two different cohorts each day. Economization of space, I suppose.
How much expense is the food budget? Schools traditionally lease their canteen to eight vendors, which are in competition with each other, but the rent was cheap, such that the food prices were usually half that of the food prices found in the market across the road. But American schools can just as easily lease their premises to ARAMARK or some similar outsourcer, although a poor district may find itself paying for a large amount of free lunches.
Discipline perhaps. A large part of discipline was managed by peer leaders known as prefects -- but then again, it was needed, because a Singaporean teacher will typically manage a class of 40. Prefects were usually popular, respected students who could influence their peers, and were nominated for this reason. (I remember my form teacher once told the class monitor -- also a student discipline role -- she did not nominate him for prefect because he was "too quiet".) In my class, 11/41 students ended being prefects. (I was not the model student, and so, I was not one.) The system has its complaints; sometimes the prefects were not perfect instruments of administration and would sometimes conspire in mischief. But at the same time, perhaps the system takes considerable work out of classroom management, reducing stress and turnover. Does the system work well in Britain, who we inherited it from?
Books. The MOE much prefers thin textbooks and workbooks. Explanations in the textbooks are rather concise and visually illustrated (not with like, full-colour photographs, but with well-annotated diagrams). In primary school for each semester, my math textbook was at max a 100+ pages and was a low-cost paperback at $3.50 SGD. The workbook was a thin tome, costing like $2. And after exhausting the workbook, the teacher (with the assistance of the department) easily made up her own problems, or used past exams, and assessment books if need be. In secondary school the textbooks and workbooks were significantly thicker, but the prices were not ridiculous -- on the range of $10-$15 SGD usually.
Perhaps it's because publishers do not have a monopoly. Schoolbooks are meant to be worn; publishing in hardcover is ridiculous. I believe MOE drafts the material (with the help of participating teachers) and then has publishers bid to publish it the most cost-effectively. On the other hand, I have never heard of the Department of Education ever publishing anything besides reports, "standards" and "rubrics". I have never seen a Department of Education approval stamp on say, a textbook.
The money must be going somewhere. The Singapore administration would probably like the opportunity many districts in America are facing, with a large influx of migrant students. From a purely economic perspective, more students means more productive citizens in the future, and new opportunities to strengthen the state machinery, especially in the face of a declining birth rate. We don't have to be that cynical, but I really dislike how many local governments view their low-income students, treating them as liabilities rather than as future solutions to the poor neighbourhoods they came from.