Transplanting Singapore math

Singapore Math works great in Singapore. But a Washington, D.C. school is struggling to .transplant a “math miracle,” reports the Washington Post.

Most D.C. elementary schools use Everyday Math, which left students with a poor grasp of number operations, says Nuhad Jamal, Bruce-Monroe’s instructional coach.  The “emphasis on games and conceptual understanding” was “a good fit for kids with strong fundamental skills, Jamal believed, but not for those with weak foundations.” So the school switched to Singapore Math, which teaches fewer concepts to mastery.

The District’s student population is highly mobile, but the Singapore curriculum builds carefully from year to year, making it more difficult for new arrivals in the upper elementary grades or at mid-year.

The school, where nearly 60 percent of the 400 students are Hispanic, uses a dual-language program. Classrooms have a mix of English- and Spanish-dominant students who split time between the two languages. But without Spanish versions of the Singapore textbooks, teachers had difficulty getting ideas across. . . .

Even in English, Singapore math does not come easily to many American teachers. Experts say it takes one to two years to really learn the system. The no-frills textbooks lack teacher editions and other aids that are part of U.S. math packages such as “Everyday Mathematics.” Singapore’s elementary instructors receive significantly more math than their U.S. counterparts, who are often generalists.

So far, Bruce-Monroe’s math scores are down.

Some 2,000 U.S. schools have tried Singapore Math, but no large district has adopted the curriculum, the Post reports. The fact that it requires elementary teachers to understand math well has to be a serious obstacle.

Update: A math teacher talks about learning how to teach Singapore Math on the Daily Riff.

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  1. >The fact that it requires elementary teachers to understand math well has to be a serious obstacle.

    Sigh, I’m sure you’re right, but it’s sure depressing. We’re not talking calculus here, just things like the associative property of arithmetic or long division.

    A society whose teachers can’t deal with arithmetic is doomed.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    We’re talking fractions. Singapore Math fourth graders are expected to add and subtract fractions, something alien to many American grade school teachers, and many American college freshmen.

  3. Allison says:

    –The no-frills textbooks lack teacher editions and other aids that are part of U.S. math packages such as “Everyday Mathematics.”

    This is misleading at best. The Primary Mathematics series books have instructor’s guides. Other version of the textbooks have been adapted to the US market, and do have more of the typical scope-sequence pacing that American books.

    But what they don’t have is inane analogies and activities where students write sentences about how they think about math. They have a lot of math. Teachers can’t just move to it with 2 days of training (or even 5 days of training), but that’s about all they get.

    Many of our elementary teachers do not understand place value or the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication or division. They don’t understand the difference between division and division with remainder. And fractions and decimals are well beyond them.

    Until that’s fixed, changing textbooks isn’t going to help much.

  4. I’m using singapore math 6 with my 6th grade daughter. It does come with a teacher’s book so I don’t know why the author wrote that; however, it definitely assumes that the teacher understands basic math! I think most elementary teachers in the US would need intensive workshops to learn how to teach singapore math due to their poor understanding of the subject. Since I love math, even though I’m not a wiz at it, I enjoy working through the singapore curriculum because it is helping me become a better teacher and a more flexible thinker with regards to math problems.

  5. Has the writer taken a look at the textbooks and seen what it would be like to teach from them? Our school district was upgrading to a newer version of Everyday Math and kindly gave me a set of old teacher manuals, student journals, etc. The worksheets themselves aren’t problematic so long as you don’t allow children to use calculators, etc. and teach the concepts.

    But the work! OH, I do not know for the life of me how public schoolteachers do it. Each lesson, you must plan ahead of time which journal to get out, which “math masters” item to xerox, get stuff out for games, etc. WHAT a pain. Much easier by far to go lesson by lesson by lesson in Singapore Mathematics. Almost never do they ask for preplanned items (EM asks for things like bread ties and straws and assorted odds and ends on a regular basis!) and the curriculum goes through step by step by step.

    Done? Move on to the next lesson. Some lessons, we’d spend three or four days on. Other times, we find ourselves able to get through an entire lesson in a day.

    The only relative drawback (and an easily correctable one with a weekly “review” sheet, perhaps) is that SM doesn’t do much review. Some of its English is a bit stilted (for example “pots of plant” instead of “potted plants) but it is workable.

    I have zero teacher training and have been able to work with this program at home. FYI my nine-year-old is now in high school algebra…which… I failed in high school. My point being…there’s really no reason *every* teacher couldn’t do Singapore Maths. EM is doable too, but *whoo* there is a lot of planning involved and it would drive me nuts if I had to do it on a schedule. We just used some of the very excellent worksheets and left the “how do you feel about math?” type sheets blank. 🙂

  6. SuperSub says:

    “My point being…there’s really no reason *every* teacher couldn’t do Singapore Maths”

    Unless, of course, those teachers have the mathematical ability of slugs, of which I have met a few. I knew of one elementary school teacher who was mystified how I could calculate sales tax in my head.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    But the work! OH, I do not know for the life of me how public schoolteachers do it. Each lesson, you must plan ahead of time which journal to get out, which “math masters” item to xerox, get stuff out for games, etc. WHAT a pain. … (EM asks for things like bread ties and straws and assorted odds and ends on a regular basis!),

    Perhaps that is a feature rather than a bug.

    1. Elementary teachers get good at making and following activity plans, especially if someone does most of the planning for them (“For the next lesson, get ____, copy ____,make sure students have _____.”). You don’t have to know the material that well.

    2. It keeps kids occupied. Even in the elementary grades, a lot of school is day care.

  8. I’ve used Singapore Primary Math 3A-4B in our homeschool. It does have a teacher’s guide but does *NOT* have daily scripted lessons like many curricula.

    It also assumes the student can make conceptual leaps rather than walking him/her through it step-by-step-by-step. I’ve got a bright child who can usually make those leaps just fine but for certain topics I’ve had to supplement with a different program (Math Mammoth).

    A program based on the Singapore way of teaching math that is more step-by-step is Math in Focus: The Singapore Approach from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt. The scope & sequence of MIF appears somewhat behind Singapore Primary Math by the 4th grade level, and the MIF “Enrichment” book appears less challenging than the Primary Math Intensive Practice one. For a bright student, Primary Math would therefore remain the better choice. But for average ones, MIF would probably be more appropriate.

  9. “The fact that it requires elementary teachers to understand math well has to be a serious obstacle.”

    Surprise, surprise, surprise. One has to be able understand math and perform computation to teach it well. Whowouldathunkit? Certainly not ed schools.

    “The no-frills textbooks lack teacher editions and other aids…”

    I taiuht for years and never once used a teacher edition or manuals. I found them either redundant or useless. But, then, I knew my subjects.

  10. I figure out sales tax every day in my head…it’s not hard to figure out that if the sales tax is 8.1 cents on the dollar, a $10 purchase (for all taxable items) will be 81 cents.

    This isn’t rocket science, it’s just basic math skilled honed over and over through endless drills in grades 1-6 when I attended public school. How many kids know their multiplication tables inside and out… 12 x 11 = 132, 5 x 9 = 45, etc.

    Fractions are something that one used to learn in elementary school, and by definition, unless the fraction is improper (numerator is larger than the denominator), the value of a fraction will always be some value between 0 and 1 (inclusive), with the exception that the denominator cannot be zero (0), as division by zero is undefined.

    If the parents and teachers in elementary school (grades 1-5) have weak math skills, the student is going to have a miserable time learning math properly (i.e. – without the use of calculators or other questionable aids).

    On a side note, here is a link from one of our local newspapers questioning a fact about our state’s high school graduation rate being inflated for YEARS:

    makes for some pretty sad reading, IMO…

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    “…unless the fraction is improper (numerator is larger than the denominator), the value of a fraction will always be some value between 0 and 1 (inclusive), with the exception that the denominator cannot be zero (0), as division by zero is undefined.”

    Between -1 and +1, exclusive. Both the numerator and the denominator are integers (with the restriction you mentioned that the denominator cannot be zero) 🙂

  12. Point taken, though I rarely work with negative fractions, they do indeed exist 🙂

  13. Barry Garelick says:

    The Post article (for which I notice comments are closed; wow, that was fast!) mentions that the school had major disruption problems due to Rhee wanting to shut down the school, and it also mentions that the school didn’t stage the introduction of Singapore Math in the early grades first so that students had a basis. Sticking a fourth grader into Singapore Math after three years of Everyday Math borders on child cruelty. Singapore Math builds upon itself and by fourth grade, students have acquired various skills and concepts whose mastery has been developed upon in the three previous grades, as opposed to Everyday Math’s spiraling and exposure method of teaching math. Is it any wonder test scores went down? It also mentions Montgomery County using Singapore math “for research purposes” in 2000. Interesting that Montgomery County is spinning it that way.

  14. I would never believe without huge amounts of evidence that Singapore Math would work for anything other than bright kids–who may or may not struggle with math. Under no circumstances would it be my tenth pick as a curriculum for kids who struggle with math.

    In California, elementary teachers have to pass a math test that means they will have the knowledge they need. It’s not rocket science.

  15. Simply passing a multiple choice test is no guarantee that the teachers actually understand arithmetic. I always did well on standardized math tests because I have a good memory. But until I started using Asian-based programs in our homeschool, I had no clue *WHY* the algorithms worked. It was all rote plug-n-chug. It isn’t rocket science, but there’s much more to elementary school math than appears at first glance.

  16. It’s amazing how so many people have the short-term memory of a gnat. You all do realize that teachers with even fewer standards to meet managed to teach kids math for years, right?

  17. Sorry, hit enter by accident.

    But no, most of you want to make the teaching of elementary school math some intensely challenging and cognitively demanding process that requires special skills that our stupid elementary school teachers just can’t manage.

    Somehow, however, most of our kids show mastery anyway–even though most of them don’t have micromanaging parents (homeschoolers or not) who think their kids can’t learn a thing unless they take on the task themselves.

    Our teachers aren’t that stupid. And elementary school math isn’t that hard for anyone of average cognitive ability or higher. Which means the kids of everyone posting here are just fine. Teaching math to kids of low cognitive ability is incredibly difficult–in fact, it’s arguable we don’t really know how to do it yet–and there’s no evidence that advanced knowledge of math will make *that* task (teaching low ability kids) more successful.

    So many different ways for people to be either stupid, wrong, or both.

  18. I’m not satisfied with my kids having the kind of rote calculation ability that I got from my math instruction growing up. Of course I want them to be able to quickly and accurately solve equations. However, that’s not enough if they hope to compete in the global marketplace. They’re going to be up against all the Asian and European students who clean the U.S.’s clock on comparative math tests. Hanushek found that 12 countries had more than double the percentage of 8th graders scoring in the “advanced” range in math.

    I don’t think it’s particularly difficult for teachers to learn the concepts in arithmetic, but they have to be motivated enough to want to improve their own understanding. The best chance we have for that IMHO is during pre-service training. I think the Singapore math teacher training course (using the Parker & Baldridge textbook Elementary Math for Teachers) should be required for all would-be elementary schoolteachers. Even if the district where they wind up teaching uses a different math curriculum, the conceptual knowledge gained will be helpful.

  19. Crimson, that’s just silly. Teach your kid if you want, but if you think it’s because public schools coiuldn’t do better, you’re kidding yourself.

    As for your training plan for teachers, notice that you seem to assume they aren’t motivated. Again, you’re pretty clueless about what is required for the average elementary school teacher in most states, and their understanding is adequate for what they need to do if they can pass the test.

    You don’t think that’s enough? So what?

    Try and keep these ideas in your mind simultaneously:

    1) White and Asian kids are learning math fine. They could be doing more, but to the extent that they aren’t, it’s not teacher incompetence but fear of making the achievement gap larger that prevents this.

    2) Black and Hispanic kids are not, as groups, learning math well. The reasons have little to do with teacher ability and everything to do with their average cognitive ability and, to a lesser degree, their income and interest.

    Curriculum choices are highly dependent on student cognitive ability, and we refuse to recognize this. So any discussion about curriculum is a waste of time. Any discussion of teacher training is, likewise, a waste of time. We can’t really know how to train our teachers until we know who they are teaching–and, for the most part, the teacher ability and understanding they have now is doing a better than average job of teaching our top kids, so it’s not high on the list of things we need to worry about.

  20. There may be another reason why Singapore math, both as a style and from a results perspective, may be hard to implement here. A study by Ratheon found that 45% of Singaporean middle schoolers are being tutored outside of school relative to 10% of US students.

    It’s not just in curriculum, it’s in the entire approach to education.

  21. Thanks for the link, Joanne. We have a new post today in response to Turque’s article.

  22. Love Mr. Garelick’s ability to excuse problems with the Singapore Math program here but not allow similar explanations for programs he despises (e.g., Everyday Math, Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, Connected Math, et al). I have pointed out the hypocrisy of the “math warriors” (e.g., members of groups like Mathematically Correct, HOLD, etc.) for about 15 years when it comes to changing and bending the rules constantly to suit their agenda and doctrine. This latest case is simply another predictable example: if a program has the educational-conservative imprimatur, there’s ALWAYS a reason when it doesn’t succeed as advertised: bad teachers, bad ‘educrats,’ bad parent, ad nauseum. When a program with a progressive educational philosophy doesn’t knock it out of the park, however, it’s “No Excuses” time.

    Please note that this generalizes to the whole education deform game-plan: they shove charters, for-profit management, privatization, vouchers, rote learning, teacher-centered instruction, merit pay, destruction of tenure, unions, seniority, etc., down the throats of anyone in any place they can manage it, then suddenly have PLENTY of excuses when real statistical analysis shows that in the vast majority of cases, these “reforms” make things worse or fail to out perform the methods and systems they’ve replaced. It’s a beautiful shell game, as long as you’re not a kid, teacher, administrator, or parent being conned.

  23. Cal,

    If you have any data showing that today’s elementary school teachers have adequate training in math, please share it. Let me repeat what I wrote you on an earlier thread:

    “What I witnessed when I audited a math methods class at the local ed school (part of the local Ivy League university) was a majority of students who were extremely weak in math. Many, for example, confessed to getting help from their fathers, husbands, and boy friends on the weekly problems (which were at about the level of 4th-6th grade Singapore Math).”

    Even at the best schools, the consequences are dire, though here, many parents have access to outside tutoring, (please note that when you bring up race and ethnicity, you must look at what’s happening, or not happening, outside the school).

    Here’s some more of what I wrote you earlier:


    Take, for example, the local elementary school in my neighborhood. It is a joint collaboration with the above ed school and the city school district. Its existence has caused real estate prices in its catchment area nearly to double. Because it’s perceived as a great place to teach (among other perks, class size is capped well below the city-wide class size limits), many teachers apply. *And* the school has site selection privileges, so the principal, a former high school math teacher, can hand-pick the teachers. So you’d might think that every elementary school teacher who gets a job at this school would, in particular, have a good grasp of mathematics.

    Not so.

    Indeed, some teachers have been hired after confessing during their interviews
    (which parents who sign up are allowed to attend) that they hate math and aren’t
    good at it.

    The school has also picked a terrible math curriculum:

    The result of this is that only those children who are getting outside tutoring in math are mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic [at the level of Singapore Math–which many of them are using on the sly outside of school].

    [end quote]

    If you can’t do 4th – 6th grade Singapore Math problems, I suspect you can’t teach them either.

  24. “if a program has the educational-conservative imprimatur, there’s ALWAYS a reason when it doesn’t succeed as advertised: bad teachers, bad ‘educrats,’ bad parent, ad nauseum. ”

    If the Singapore Math curriculum is conservative, then so are the Japanese, Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, and Russian curricula, as well as much of what is used in continental Europe.

    Or is it just its imprimatur in this country that’s conservative? Perhaps there is then some evidence showing this–evidence, in other words, that preference for Singapore Math correlates (for example) with opposition to gay marriage or to environmental regulation.

  25. I don’t know how to break this to people, but more than a few elementary school teachers are admittedly math phobic and strongly dislike math. I’ve heard elementary level teachers in my school district openly admit that they just don’t get division or fractions.

    Elementary math may not seem like rocket science to some, but for many of our elementary school teachers, the math that is taught at the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade levels is beyond their comprehension.

    Singapore Math’s biggest strength – the assumption that it is taught by someone who understands math – is it’s biggest weakness here in the US because mathematical comprehension and fluency aren’t required to become an elementary teacher.

  26. Cal/Michele,

    If teachers and administrators are so solid on basic math, why do they perform so poorly in the quantitative section of the GRE — which tops out at high school level math/pre-calculus?

    Look it up.

  27. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    I will not try to address the Singapore debate here, other than observe that Cal’s statements are unsupported by any empirical data I am aware of (e.g., does Cal has any evidence to support her belief that the IQ of Hispanics is worse, or better, than that of the Malay minority in Singapore?)

    But I wanted to share some of my first hand observations of the DC Singapore pilot program. I happened to observe it closely at the time and — among other things — participated in the monthly teacher training sessions.

    It was a very difficult situation, as comes through the article too. The district curricular leadership hated the idea of Singapore math (Rhee didn’t seem to care — she was in the midst of non-curricular battles) and it just succeeded in closing the program at another poor DC school (Powell) that was actually quite successful there. Restarting it at Bruce Monroe, with all the upheaval it was going through at the time, seemed like administration’s way to prove the program cannot work.

    Despite that difficult start I am glad to see that many teachers still like it. Unfortunately the extra support needed in the first years seems to have disappeared, and B-M was left to cope for itself against unsupportive district.

    I personally don’t think the absence of Spanish version was an issue — the program requires rather minimal language skills and is focused on math rather than on language, in contrast to many American books. The issue was discussed a few times during the first year of implementation and teachers were quite clear on the fact they did not view it as a serious problem. Seems they use it now to explain their slow progress. Not surprising, given that the alternative is to tell the truth and blame the district administration for its lack of support, if not worse.

    Another interesting point that came up in DC was the lack of scripted lesson plan for Singapore program, that was commented upon by some people here. The prior year DCPS decided to close the successful Singapore program in Powell — it replaced Powell’s previous principal (for other reasons, I was told) and the new principal was ideologically against Singapore and wanted to kill the pilot. A session was held in the summer of 2008 with the district math staff, the incoming principal, and Powell piloting teachers who, incidentally, were without exception in support of continuing the pilot. I was also present.

    I should mention here that the K-2 Powell teachers (the pilot grades) generally speaking lacked strong math background. The only one with a stronger math background couldn’t attend the meeting, as she was getting married in Hawaii that same week. In the meeting both the new principal, and the district staff, attacked the Singapore program and one of their point was, in fact, this exact argument — that the Singapore program has “insufficient teacher support,” and that it “has no ready-made teacher lessons.” And this is where things turned out interesting for me.

    Rather than take it as a negative, those –mathematically weak! — teachers took this exact point and argued that it was one of the main reasons why they liked the program. “When we prepare a lesson for EveryDay Math (the district’s standard program) we go every day over the printed lesson plan and we think we understand it. Then, when we get to the class, we tend to forget those quickly scanned lessons, and when we are asked a non-obvious question by one of the kids, we are generally stumped.” In contrast, they argued, “with Singapore Math we have no prepared lesson plan, but the units are longer and more cohesive. So we need to actually study the whole unit for a week or two ahead, and prepare our own plans for those two weeks rather than a day at a time. As a result, we actually understand what we are teaching and we have no difficulty to respond to kids’ question in the class.”

    I was floored. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And this from what I considered mathematically-weak primary grades teachers, trying to fight a new principal and the district’s math admins. Wow.

    There was little left to be said at that meeting. It was quickly wrapped up, and the teachers were promised to be notified of the decision. Not surprisingly, the decision came a few days later to kill Powell’s pilot. A month later the school year started without Singapore math (a new, independent, pilot started in Bruce-Monroe). Withing a month of school’s start the new and ideological principal quit. But the pilot was already dead.

  28. “Perhaps there is then some evidence showing this–evidence, in other words, that preference for Singapore Math correlates (for example) with opposition to gay marriage or to environmental regulation.”

    Curriculum wars always strike me as odd — why would political liberals ever want to taunt anyone with the “conservative” label for supporting rigorous and intellectually demanding curriculum?