Schools in the U.S. are adopting the Singapore model amid growing concerns that too many students lack the higher-order math skills.

By the time they get to kindergarten, children in Franklin Lakes, N.J., this well-to-do suburb already know their numbers, so their teachers worried that a new math programme was too easy when it covered just one and two — for a whole week.

“Talk about the number one for 45 minutes?” said Chris Covello, who teaches 16 students ages five and six. “I was like, I don't know. But then I found you really could. Before, we had a lot of ground to cover, and now it's more open-ended and gets kids thinking.”

Singapore math

The slower pace is a cornerstone of the district's new approach to teaching math, which is based on the national math system of Singapore and aims to emulate that country's success by promoting a deeper understanding of numbers and math concepts. Students in Singapore have repeatedly ranked at or near the top on international math exams since the mid-1990s.

Franklin Lakes, about 30 miles northwest of Manhattan, is one of dozens of districts, from Scarsdale, N.Y., to Lexington, Ky., that in recent years have adopted Singapore math, as it is called, amid growing concerns that too many U.S. students lack the higher-order math skills called for in a global economy.

For decades, efforts to improve math skills have driven schools to embrace one math programme after another, abandoning a programme when it does not work and moving on to something purportedly better. In the 1960s there was the “new math,” whose focus on abstract theories spurred a back-to-basics movement, emphasising rote learning and drills. After that came “reform math,” where the focal point on problem solving and conceptual understanding has been derided by critics as the “new new math.”

Singapore math might be a fad, too, but supporters say it seems to address one of the difficulties in teaching math: all children learn differently. In contrast to the most common math programmes 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 learned a topic thoroughly.

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

And with Singapore math, the pace can accelerate by fourth and fifth grade, putting children as much as a year ahead of students in other math programmes as they grasp complex problems more quickly.

“Our old programme, Everyday Math, did not do that,” said Danielle Santoro, assistant principal of Public School 132 in Brooklyn, N.Y., which introduced Singapore math last year for all 700 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. “One day it could be money, the next day it could be time, and you would not get back to those concepts until a week later.”

Singapore math's added appeal is that it has largely skirted the math wars of the past half-century over whether to teach traditional math or reform math. Indeed, Singapore math has often been described by educators and parents as a more balanced approach between the two, melding old-fashioned algorithms with visual representations and critical thinking.

Its evolution

In Franklin Lakes, teachers are learning the new math system as they pass the knowledge on to their students. One morning last week, Covello and six other kindergarten teachers worked with a consultant on how to reinforce the number eight for students. First came a catchy tune about eight oranges; then they counted off one by one while throwing up their arms in a wave.

Singapore math was developed by the country's Ministry of Education nearly 30 years ago, and the textbooks have been imported to the United States for more than a decade. The earliest adopters were home-school parents and a small number of schools that had heard about it through word of mouth.

Today, it can be found in neighbourhood schools like P.S. 132, which serves mostly poor and minority children, and elite schools, including Hunter College Elementary School, a public school for gifted children in Manhattan, and the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, a private school attended by President Barack Obama's daughters.

SingaporeMath.com, a company that has distributed the “Primary Mathematics” books in the United States since 1998, reports that it now has sales to more than 1,500 schools, about twice as many as in 2008. And Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Math in Focus, the U.S. edition of a popular Singapore math series, is now used in 120 school districts and 60 charter schools and private schools, the publisher says.

Not easy, expensive

Some recent research suggests that students who are taught Singapore math score higher on standardised math tests. In anecdotal reports, teachers say the method helps young children to develop confidence in their math abilities. School officials still caution that Singapore math is not easy or cheap to successfully adopt.

In some districts, there has also been scepticism from school board members and parents about importing a foreign math programme. The books look different from standard-issue textbooks, with fewer pages and brightly coloured pictures and diagrams. Early versions contained references to curry puffs and the Asian fruit rambutan.

The books and materials cost an average of $40 to $52 per student, comparable to other math programmes in the United States. As with other math programmes, workbooks might be replaced from year to year. Training teachers can be expensive, though.

“All along, people have said it's too hard, too demanding for teachers,” said Jeffery Thomas, a history teacher who founded the website 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 programme.

When the Scarsdale district switched to Singapore math at its elementary schools in 2008, it expanded the number of math coaches to three from one to help the 110 classroom teachers learn the material. The district spent $121,000 on the “Primary Mathematics” books and $24,632 for teachers' materials.

Bill Jackson, one of Scarsdale's new math coaches, scribbled notes the other day as he watched a fourth-grade math class. For nearly an hour, the students pored over a single number: 82,566 (the seats in New Meadowlands Stadium, where the New York Giants and New York Jets play football). The class built a mini-version of the stadium 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. U.S. math programmes, he said, typically skip the middle step and lose students when making the jump from concrete (chips) to abstract (questions).

Mr. Jackson began experimenting with Singapore math while teaching at School 2 in Paterson, N.J., in 2000. Test scores were mixed, and the school replaced it four years later. Despite the replacement, Jackson continued to use it when he could. “I learned more math from Singapore math than I ever did in high school or college,” he said. — © New York Times News Service

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