Schools import Singapore math style

Diagrams, models used to aid comprehension
By Susan Ware, Globe Correspondent  |  June 10, 2004

The students at the Varnum Brook Elementary School in Pepperell groaned in unison when teacher Karin Pillion announced they would do the next set of problems out loud -- without pencil, paper, or calculators.

"What is 6 times .04?" Pillion began.

Multiplying decimal points in their heads is not something fourth-graders in the North Middlesex Regional School District were doing a decade ago. But despite the groans, the class on Monday morning moved confidently through a dozen problems, using a method known as Singapore Math.

"I have seen kids go a long way with Singapore," said Pillion. "Even those that came to class at the beginning of the year with math phobias are up to speed."

The district, which educates more than 4,600 students from Pepperell, Townsend Ashby, is finishing up its fourth year with Singapore Math as a part of the curriculum.

Next fall, more than 100 classrooms in the North Middlesex district, including all students in grades 1 through 6, will learn mathematics with this method. And the district will lead the way for about 10 other Massachusetts towns to adopt this teaching method.

Singapore Math caught on in 1999, when that country's students ranked first in an international study of mathematics and science education. (US students finished 19th out of 38.) Singapore had placed in the middle of the pack four years earlier, then implemented a new teaching system. After the 1999 results, educators worldwide began to examine the approach of this modern Southeast Asian island nation of 4.5 million people.

Impressed by Singapore's results, the Massachusetts Department of Education began looking for a school district to implement that nation's techniques. North Middlesex was the first to accept.

"North Middlesex is our visionary; they are the vanguard for implementation," said Barbara Libby, math and science administrator for the state Department of Education. "Their data, evidence classroom stories will tell us a lot and shape the future of Singapore Math in the Commonwealth."

While math is an ancient discipline, the way it has been traditionally taught in the United States varies greatly from the way it is taught in Singapore.

Relying on diagrams and models, as well as increasingly complex word problems to impart basic skills, Singapore Math teaches students a new way to look at the subject. The student is taught to find different ways to solve problems not by simply applying formulas taught by their teacher.

In Singapore Math, there is no memorization of tables or rote exercises. At times, the students do not even use paper and pencil, but must do math mentally.

The caveat, though, is that unlike in American math, where topics are revisited year after year, Singapore math students are exposed one time to a concept in following years, the curriculum builds on principles learned. Second-graders learn about shapes, third-graders work out the area and perimeter on a grid fourth-graders learn about area and perimeter with an unknown side.Continued...

The idea is that the repetition in the traditional math curriculum builds skills, but can also lead to burnout.

"I tell teachers that they have to cover all concepts in the unit because it is not going to be repeated," said Pillion, who conducts training classes for fellow teachers.

This can be a challenge for teachers like Pillion, who may have a class where some students have had Singapore Math and others have not. Next school year, however, all students entering the fourth grade at Varnum Brook will have had a full year of Singapore Math under their belts.

In fact, in the fall, more than 90 percent of the school district will be using Singapore Math, said Assistant Superintendent Mary Waight .

"Why have we stuck with Singapore Math? Because we are starting to see positive results," said Waight. "And our students and teachers are getting excited about math."

According to Richard Bisk, a mathematics professor at Worcester State College, Singapore Math empowers students while giving them a solid mix of basic skills and critical thinking.

"Between 25 percent and 50 percent of college freshmen needed remedial math education. There are definitely big gaps in the way math is traditionally taught," said Bisk, who teaches workshops to educators for the state Department of Education.

He added that although the curriculum sets high expectations, "it's relatively easy to follow and use because of its focus on understanding mathematical concepts.

"The model-drawing technique aids in this process and provides a powerful strategy for problem solving and for preparing students for the study of algebra."

To better gauge the program's success, the North Middlesex district has joined with Stanford University to develop an assessment test that they hope will further support what they already believe.

"Our students are doing advanced math and are learning much more than we ever thought students could learn," said Waight.

While Singapore Math is being touted by educators as the teaching concept that is breathing life back into math studies, there are some downsides.

Until this year, all of the material, sold through a tiny distributor in Oregon, used names unfamiliar to American students. But now, workbooks have replaced Meihua, Raju Chengfa with Loraine, Jordan Elizabeth. Money units had images of Singapore currency only the metric system was taught.

Additionally, one important area of the state's curriculum framework is not taught, forcing teachers to supplement on the subject of probability.

Yet one of the biggest obstacles is making sure that Singapore Math is accessible to educators who were not math majors and parents attempting to help with homework. While traditional math worksheets offer instruction, Singapore Math sheets do not, leaving many parents wondering what to do.

"The mind-set is different in Singapore. The reason the worksheets do not have instructions is because the teachers want the students to learn in the classroom, not at home," said Waight, adding the school district has held seminars in Singapore Math for parents.

The change to a new math curriculum does not come without cost some have said that if the old curriculum was working, why change? Middlesex students in all grades place higher than the state average in math in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Additionally, Massachusetts outperforms the majority of states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card.

Last year the school district received a $20,000 grant from the state Department of Education to teach Singapore Math. Last month, the state told the district that it will receive another grant, though the final amount has not been determined, to share research and findings on the implementation of the program.

Waight estimates that Singapore Math costs the school district $30 per student per year more than traditional methods.

Interestingly, the flow of information between the United States and Singapore isn't a one-way street. In the international study, Singapore's students ranked near the middle for science, while US students were at the top. In September 2002, the US Department of Education and the Singapore government signed an agreement to cooperate in math and science education by sharing curriculum and teacher-training methods.

"We get to look at the way they teach math," Waight said. "They get to look at they way we teach science everyone wins."

Susan Ware can be reached at

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