U.S. schools adopt Singapore Math

More U.S. schools are adopting Singapore Math, reports the New York Times, which characterizes the program as a balance between traditional and reform math.

In contrast to the most common math programs in the United States, Singapore math devotes more time to fewer topics, to ensure that children master the material through detailed instruction, questions, problem solving, and visual and hands-on aids like blocks, cards and bar charts. Ideally, they do not move on until they have thoroughly learned a topic.

Principals and teachers say that slowing down the learning process gives students a solid math foundation upon which to build increasingly complex skills, and makes it less likely that they will forget and have to be retaught the same thing in later years.

Despite the slow start, Singapore Math students can be a year ahead by fourth or fifth grade, advocates say.  Singapore, which developed the program 30 years ago, is first in the world in international math tests.

SingaporeMath.com sells books to more than 1,500 schools, about twice as many as in 2008. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math in Focus, the U.S. edition of a Singapore math series, is used in 120 school districts and 60 charter schools and private schools.

The books and materials cost about as much as other math books, but teachers need training, which can be expensive.

“All along, people have said it’s too hard, too demanding for teachers,” said Jeffery Thomas, a history teacher who founded SingaporeMath.com with his wife, Dawn, after using the books to tutor their daughter at home in the suburbs of Portland, Ore.

Mr. Thomas said that about a dozen schools had started and dropped Singapore math, in some cases because teachers themselves lacked a strong math background and adequate training in the program.

Scarsdale hired math coaches to help teachers use Singapore Math. Bill Jackson observed a  fourth-grade math class devoted to analyzing the number 82,566 (the seats in New Meadowlands Stadium, where the Giants and Jets play football).

They built it with chips on a laminated mat, diagrammed it on a smart board and, finally, solved written questions.

Mr. Jackson said that students moved through a three-step learning process: concrete, pictorial, abstract. American math programs, he said, typically skip the middle step and lose students when making the jump from concrete (chips) to abstract (questions).

For those of you using Singapore Math, does the Times describe it accurately?

Utah’s Math Future wants to use Singapore Math as the basis for the state’s math standards. The site links to Let’s Play Math, which shows how students use bar graphs to solve math problems set in Narnia.

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  1. Genevieve says:

    I would say that the Times article is incomplete. It doesn’t really discuss the importance of word problems in Singapore Math. It also makes it seem a lot easier for students than it is. We started my daughter in the 1B book and even then it was ahead of what her school class was doing. Now that she is in 3A it is way ahead of her second grade work. She seems to understand math quickly, I don’t know if this is because of Singapore Math or just her.

    I also don’t understand why so many Math coaches are needed. Granted one on one instruction is different, but I have never had any trouble teaching my daughter Singapore Math. (While I took Calculus and Statistics in college, I was not a Math or science major).

  2. We’ve been using Singapore’s Primary Mathematics for 5 years now in our home school. One child just started the fifth grade books. The Kindergarten books are very different than the rest of the elementary books – too much fluff but they didn’t sound as bad as the books mentioned in the article. 45 minutes on the number 1? Poor children. Painful and way too much time for five year olds!

    I ended up chucking the books we had and working slowly through the first grade books with my Kindergartner.

    I am surprised to learn that expensive and extensive training is needed to teach this program in the public schools. I think this is more a reflection of the general math skills of the teachers than any complexity in the program. I have found it to be a no-nonsense program that does a good job of teaching both mental math and working the algorithms on paper. I like that pictures are only there to explain the concepts and methods. The pages are clean and simple – not busy. Each section ends with word problems to see if the student can apply what he has learned.

    Four thin books are needed per grade – two workbooks and two textbooks. They cost $9/book from singaporemath.com when I bought mine. You can reuse the textbooks and only buy new workbooks for additional children. I have three going through the program.

    My sense is that the program used in the schools has been modified to be more hands-on and group oriented. It sounds way more manipulative intensive and drawn out than what we do or what our books show. More time consuming and even boring. The version described in the article seems sure to kill any passion for the subject. I don’t recognize it as the program we use. Can one still call the program “Singapore Math” after it has been restyled to suit education professionals? I wonder.

  3. I do think that the Singapore Primary Math can be hard to teach even with the Home Instructor’s Guide. The problem is that Singapore assumes the child can make conceptual leaps, which may or may not be the case. I personally supplement Singapore with Math Mammoth in our homeschool. MM is based on the Asian way of teaching math like Singapore but the author walks the student through the concepts step-by-step-by-step. I use MM to introduce the topic because of the better explanations, and then have my child go through the Singapore chapters for practice.

  4. Such a lost opportunity by the NYT to share Bill Jackson’s (one of three mentioned in article) comprehensive series on Singapore Math + posts on his very recent trip to Singapore re:Singapore Math and general teacher professional development and education culture. Original, exclusive to the Daily Riff from extensive first-hand knowledge from Jackson- a great service to readers wanting more, especially judging from the comments in Winnie Hu’s piece –

    This series is hardly a secret, as it was published this spring with a notable following
    http://www.thedailyriff.com/cgi bin/mt/mt.cgi__mode=view&_type=entry&id=198&blog_id=1

  5. It is easy for homeschoolers to misinterpret the Singapore curriculum. When you have the textbook and workbook in front of you, you might think you are holding something that will teach math to your kids. But that would be like thinking if you look over some Powerpoint slides you won’t need to go to the talk.

    The textbook is an outline of what and when to teach the kids, but (depending on the student, age, book level, etc) you will often need to construct a lesson that goes beyond reading through the textbook. I find this to be true less often as my kids have advanced through it, but especially in book sets 1 and 2 we will often spend a couple of days working through examples, maybe using manipulatives and so on, before getting to the problem sets. Then for some topics, my kids will have consistent trouble with the problems so that when they have worked all the exercises for a given topic, we can’t be done with it yet, so we back up, start again as necessary, do home-made worksheets of similar or otherwise relevant problems, and stick with it until the kid gets it. My 7-year old is plateauing out on 3-digit subtraction, so we have settled in for another couple of weeks of practice with this before moving on. Likewise, with my older son, about to get to rate and speed problems in book 6A, I anticipate that we will need to do a lot of examples and what-ifs at our basement blackboard before he works on the problems. The first few sets are often easy, and then get harder, and then at the chapter-end review, kids can often be flummoxed by problems they don’t seem prepared for. This means that between the pages of the textbook, the parent/teacher needs to be helping the student further his understanding. Then on other topics they might breeze through in fewer days per chapter.

    I don’t recall anything in Singapore 1 or 2 that implies the student is going to spend a long time on the numbers 1 and 2. That must have been the teacher’s decision.

    In other ways the Singapore textbook/workbook set is not a complete curriculum. There is no rote practice of arithmetic facts. The parent/ teacher has to work that in additionally. Surely the teachers in Singapore do that too, since how else are kids supposed to do 3-digit subtraction in book 2A if they are not proficient in 1-digit arithmetic by frequent repetitive practice?

    The article makes Singapore sound like a slow curriculum. It would never have occurred to me to think of it as slow. It seems inherently variable. It is fast in the sense that all 4 arithmetic operations are introduced in books 1A/B (a little multiplication and division plus lots of addition and subtraction).

    Singapore is noted for its use of bar models. These are very helpful in the early grades, but by books 5A/B and 6A/B it seems more natural to introduce simple algebra; the bar model is cumbersome, although it is a great fall-back when kids are confused about certain things. But if someone can use two linear equations to solve “changing ratio” problems, why would they want to use bar models? I think the curriculum would be improved greatly if it introduced the algebra on its own. That is one other thing that we did independently while using Singapore as a basis.

    The real key to Singapore? Word problems are used early and often. The Challenging Word Problems series (now replaced by something else that I am not familiar with) is great. Ideally you would use the text, the workbook, and the Challenging Word Problems book, although I find that for some kids they need less challenge, in which case something like the Extra Practice books does well.

    So while Singapore is the best curriculum I know of, it does not teach your kid; but you can use it as you teach your kid.

  6. Charles R. Williams says:

    Teachers in America need special training to teach this program because they have a limited grasp of elementary school mathematics. They understand place value and most can do simple computations by hand. But this curriculum is much richer than anything they have experienced as students. I doubt that some of them are even trainable.

    A school system that wants to adopt this curriculum should have dedicated math teachers in elementary schools, quality control, and rigorous provisions for students coming into their system at upper grade levels.

    All this is necessary because we are dealing with a culture that puts a low value on math skills in the general population and teachers who don’t like math, don’t understand it, don’t value it for their students and don’t want to teach it.

    The article misrepresents the curriculum by making it sound comparable to the constructivist reform curricula common in the US. Singapore teaches a breathtaking amount of mathematics at incredible depth. It is a dream curriculum for the group that opposes reform curriculum.

  7. Besides what others have mentioned above, the article gets another thing wrong. It quotes a Scarsdale math coach as saying that the Singapore Math curriculum moves “through a three-step learning process: concrete, pictorial, abstract,” in contrast to the American math programs, which “typically skip the middle step and lose students when making the jump from concrete (chips) to abstract (questions).”

    The implication that American Reform Math programs skip the pictorial step is false, and the idea that skipping this pictorial step what makes Reform Math deficient is ludicrous.

    The most recent math comparison on my blog illustrates both of these points.



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