Singapore math in Kentucky

Singapore math is working in Fayette County, Kentucky, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.  Nine schools are using textbooks based on the curriculum used in high-scoring Singapore.

So-called “Singapore math” features problems that often are more complex than American textbooks contain. It demands deep mastery of a few math concepts, rather than an overview of many different ideas.

Jessica Alt, a fifth-grade teacher, says some students who were two years below grade level in the fall scored at or above grade level half way through the year.

Singapore math “is expected to fit nicely with new, narrower and deeper math standards that Kentucky education leaders will be adopting soon.”

“Before, we would touch on a math concept, get the kids comfortable with it and then move on to something else,” (teacher Polly Anna) Cox said. “We went so fast that sometimes it could be frustrating. But with Math in Focus, we might spend a couple of months on just one concept. The students really understand it before we move on.”

Teachers are getting nearly 100 hours of training in how to use Singapore math.

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  1. My son completed Singapore levels 2 through 6. Six is their highest level in the Primary series; the next text is a mix of pre-algebra, algebra, and geometery. We began homeschooling when he began 3rd grade and began with the level 2 book. As a current 7th grader this year, he’s completing Algebra. Their sequence is more prescribed than a typical American text, covering fewer topics with significantly more depth and difficulty. They teach an algebra like bar diagramming technique for complex word problems.

    When I view the typical American textbook my eys glaze over. How in the world can any math teacher work their way through such a boatload of material in 9 months and expect to teach to real understanding and mastery with anyone but the most advanced kid? The Singapore texts are slim volumes, possibly 50 to 75 pages each. It’s typical to work through both levels A & B in a year, but it just feels significantly more managable. I think academics/teachers have made the teaching of math significant more difficult than it needs to be. If kids are fluent with the four operations, place value, fractions, and decimals then all the other stuff is just gravy and easily understood.

  2. You don’t have to dig too deeply into the math wars to discover which side Singapore math is on. It’s on the good side, well, my good side anyway. People who like Singapore math don’t like what I call “NCTM math”, or “fuzzy math”. I definitely don’t like NCTM math or fuzzy math. I think it causes a terrible waste of potential among the young. I think it trivializes math, and subverts the kind of learning of math that is most valuable, the learning that is rather easily accomplished in elementary school and provides a firm foundation not only for everyday life but for the learning of math in college and beyond. I think Stacy, in the comment above, hit the nail on the head, “ If kids are fluent with the four operations, place value, fractions, and decimals then all the other stuff is just gravy and easily understood.” Amen to that. Therefore I strongly favor Singapore Math, and I’m glad to see its adoption anywhere.

    But with all that said I’ll have to admit that I know nothing about Singapore Math. From reading the educational blogs I know that homeschooling families like it, and homeschoolers tend to be no-nonsense type of people who get good educational results. But beyond that, I know nothing. I hope, as time goes by, to retain my opinion that Singapore math is good, but to actually learn something about it so my opinion is based on some meaningful foundation.

    But my point at the moment is to consider what we might learn from this particular article, not about Singapore math, but about what the public thinks about math ed, about what reporters think about math ed, and what math teachers themselves think about math ed.

    Here’s a thought experiment. Take this article by Jim Warren in the Lexington Harold-Leader and every time you come to the term “Singapore Math”, delete that and put in the name of one of the popular fuzzy math programs. You might have to also delete a sentence here and there that would identify the subject as Singapore Math. Then show the altered article to an advocate of the fuzzy math program you used and see if it’s judged to be a good article.

    “Deep mastery” – isn’t that what fuzzy math claims? ” . .basic understanding of how math works, rather than a simple rote system for finding answers . .” – fuzzy math advocates love to talk that way. The reporter then gives anecdotal reports. I am not one to totally discount anecdotal evidence. Sometimes it is very valuable. Other times not so. But these anecdotal quotes would fit right in with what advocates of fuzzy math like to hear.

    And then this:

    “She contrasted the Singapore approach with the way she learned math as a student in the late 1970s.
    “It was all drill and rote practice back then,” Drury said. “The teacher would say, ‘Do it this way.’ You would practice with homework and then be tested.”

    This is very close to the straw man technique that I am very critical of. (You set up a straw man in order to knock him down.) However as this person claims it as personal testimony, I can’t call it a straw man. But the phrase in a later paragraph, “So many kids hate math . . .” comes closer.

    I don’t mean to judge this reporter harshly. He doesn’t claim to be a teacher, or a mathematician, or anything else that would give him a basis to judge these things. He just wants to write an interesting and informative story. This type of writing is what he judges the general public to expect and to respond to. I suppose he’s right. And so, to go one step further, I don’t mean to judge the public harshly. But I will judge the math ed establishment harshly.

    So if I may put in a plug for my own ideas, here are links to some of what I have thought and written about teaching and learning math. and

  3. Singapore Math is I think back to basics math. If you think about it, how would you explain to a child mathematical concepts ? Pictures, diagrams, everyday life examples … Bar models famous for being “Singapore Math Method” is just a logical way of expressing and teaching math concepts.

    Here is a “drill” fraction word problem for a grade 3 student in Singapore.

    At the end of the day, you have a bunch of math texbooks and workbooks, the secret sauce is the teacher and/or even a parent. You can inspire or you can make it dull.

  4. I wonder how long Fayette County will be able to keep Singapore Math with news this week that Kentucky has become the first state to endorse the “Common Core State Standards” Arne Duncan’s office is de facto promoting in its Race to the Top regulations.

    The draft CCSS Career and College Readiness Standards for K-12 stop mid-way through Geometry and do not include most of Algebra 2. As Stacy points out, Singapore Math students master much of that in junior high school. In fact, Singapore Math takes students through Trig, Calculus and Statistics before they go off to college.

    Just use CCSS as the floor? To get Race to the Top application points, Kentucky can only add 15% of its own materials to whatever CCSS requires, perhaps explaining why the Kentucky State Board of Education anticipates only “minor” edits. Hardly enough room to fit Singapore Math in.

    The head of the CCSS Initiative, Gene Wilhoit, was commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education until 2006.

  5. I am very familiar with Singapore Math and I don’t think it is even remotely accurate to call it “back to basics” math, although it might be that I don’t understand what the “back to” and “basics” mean or have to do with each other in that phrase.

    The real point that I take issue with in Lion Math’s comment is the notion that the choice of curriculum does not really matter, so much as the inspirational level of the teacher. The curriculum is at heart a list of what is to be learned. For Singapore, that list includes every sort of arithmetic computational competency, whereas many curricula plan to leave kids computationally way behind Singapore Math students. Look at Katherine Beals continuing series of comparisons of problems sets form Singapore and other curricula more commonly used by public schools ( Also, we hear a lot about “problem solving” which I put in quotes because it usually means something other than solving problems. Singapore Math properly taught, whether dull or inspiring, will teach kids how to solve word problems of many types. These problems are not trivial. I have found that they require reading comprehension as much or more than arithmetic skills. It is a very substantial education.

  6. Homeschooling Granny says:

    How would the discovery math people teach driver’s ed? When you get your car built, you can drive it?

  7. BKY, I think you might have misunderstood what i wrote and i don’t disagree with you. I am from Singapore. Of course for us, we don’t do Singapore Math, it is just math that we do here.

    If you notice in the lion math site, I put up some of the grade 3 solutions from singaporean students; so that you can make a comparison. Another thing is that our “Singapore Math” though has evolved over time is still the traditional idea of math mastery.

    It is basic, because the expectations are learning your basics well… drilling on certain aspects of math. However I admit with these basic skills, the child is expected and taught to solve complex … multi step problems — that will not be “basic.”

  8. i do singapore math at home with my 3 kids to supplement everyday math (chicago project) that they do in school. it’s great for my oldest, who is a visual learner. my youngest, 5, is flying through singapore math 1A. i think it’s a really great program. i blog on my experience at i also have research on singapore math…singapore seems to score #1 or #2 for math scores in the world.

    pragmatic mom


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