Monday, March 17, 2008

Singapore math in LA

Fifth-graders at a Title I LAUSD elementary school in Hollywood went from 45% of its students meeting math standards in 2005 to 76% in 2006 and 2007. This is an extremely impressive (and extremely rare) 31 percentage point increase especially when only 43% of fifth-graders district-wide scored proficient or above on the 2007 California Standards Test (CST) in math. How did they accomplish this impressive feat? The answer may be Singapore math.

Teaching Singapore math is like playing a classroom game ("On your mark . . . get set . . . THINK!") that encourages math thinking from “concrete to pictorial to abstract”. Critics say it is “drill and kill” but a math coach at the school describes it as “drill and thrill”. The students are excited to do math and, if test scores are any indication of learning, students are learning. The article points out that the math “drills” are “carefully thought out to reinforce patterns of mathematical thinking that carry through the curriculum." Singapore students rank at the very top while U.S. students rank somewhere in the middle in 4th and 8th grade math tests in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). According to the U.S. ED, "Singapore's textbooks build deep understanding of mathematical concepts through multi-step problems and concrete illustrations that demonstrate how abstract mathematical concepts are used to solve problems from different perspectives….By contrast…traditional U.S. textbooks rarely get beyond definitions and formulas, developing only students' mechanical ability to apply mathematical concepts." If this comparison is accurate, it would seem that U.S. math is more “drill and kill” than Singapore math.

Usually a skeptic when it comes to reports of improvements in student achievement due to a new curriculum, I could not ignore the 31 percentage point increase. A 69% increase in test scores from just a two year period is worthy of our attention. Also, since California has become the first state to add the Singapore textbooks on its list of state-approved elementary math texts, it is imperative that we study the learning of students who are taught using Singapore math. While I am certainly not advocating that all schools replace their current curriculum for Singapore math, I am suggesting that we need to continue monitoring the progress of U.S. schools that have chosen to use this alternative curriculum.


1 comment:

Andrea said...

This program does sound very exciting, but as we know in the field of education, when a new program emerges, it usually is too good to be true. I have 4 major concerns. 1) I don't know that just basing achievement on standardized tests scores is enough. Because we in the u.S, are so test-driven, what instruction ends up turning into is just preparing for the test. 2) As educational patterns suggest, when a brand new program is implemented, scores student test scores do typically increase, but the true measure is whether or not scores will continue to rise with the same program.After the first big jummp in scores during the implementation year, scores often begin to plateau and suddenly the program "isn't working anymore" and districts begin hunting down the next bid program. 3) My third concern is related to my second concern in that when one district is immediately successful in implementing a new program, other districts follow suit much too quickly and throw away large amounts of money on a program that has not been tested over time. 4) This is really more of an annoyance. Critics of the program say it is "kill" and "drill. " If students in other countries are able to learn using a "kill" and "drill" method, why do American schools resist so much. I feel that anything that is not considered fun or can be passed off as "playing," then we don't teach it. Admittedly, these types of drills are not the most thrilling activities, but I think they are necessary. One of the best lessons a student can learn is that not everything in life is fun; I don't think that paying bills is fun, so then can I just choose not to pay them?