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Why Local Schools Are Choosing Singapore Math

What is Singapore math and why is it so popular?

Singaporean students have long been among the world’s highest-ranking math students, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. American kids lag behind, not even cracking the top 10 at the elementary school level in 2011. To catch up in a globally competitive world, local schools are turning to the curriculum that has proved so successful in Singapore.

Devised from that country’s internationally acclaimed K-6 math curriculum, Singapore math and its two main textbooks — Math in Focus and Primary Mathematics — aims to instill improved conceptual understanding, problem solving skills, number sense and math mastery.

The Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACT) of Philadelphia opened its doors in 2005 with Primary Mathematics in place. “A main strength is the three-step learning process, which goes from concrete to pictorial to abstract; each new concept builds on the foundation,” says math coordinator Janice Fan. “The program is unique and the mathematical skill of our students is phenomenal.”

An added bonus? “The Singaporean approach directly supports the eight Common Core Mathematical Practice standards and very closely aligns to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Content.” says James DiDonato, curriculum/instruction director at Mt. Holly Public Schools. The South Jersey town changed to Math in Focus in the 2012-13 school year in an effort to comply with the recently adopted Common Core initiative, which promotes a nationwide set of K-12 educational standards.

The Singapore switch

The Kuumba Academy Charter School of Wilmington, DE switched to Primary Mathematics in 2007-08, after a detailed analysis revealed that its math curriculum lagged behind its reading program. A query to the Delaware Math and Science Foundation led Kuumba to the Singapore method.

Other schools made the change to break away from the spiral curriculum widely taught in the Everyday Math textbook. (A spiral curriculum circles back to basic tenets multiple times, so students attain mastery when they are developmentally ready; Singapore math eliminates the need for reteaching by requiring concept mastery before moving ahead.)

The Westtown School in West Chester, PA eschewed Everyday Math for Singapore math four years ago. Math specialist Wendy Dubas says she likes “the way the program bridges from the lower grades to the middle school; we are seeing strong cohesive progress.”

 

Classroom changes

Changing curricula can be challenging, especially when the tenets of a program differ from those students and teachers are accustomed to. At Westtown, growing pains occurred specifically at the 5th-grade level, as the Singapore math lesson plan was further along in its progress than Everyday Math’s. “It’s very different, more rigorous,” says Dubas, who explains that the school got kids up to speed with supplemental materials. Today, “Many students are finding mastery, not 100 percent, but they are on their way.”

MK Parents Postulate on
Singapore Math

• “It's a hard curriculum. The little guys who start out on it will be great at it; older kids who switch over
typically struggle to catch up.” —Belinda C.
• “I think the method builds a strong number sense in children very early on. I’ve noticed that my daughter really understands math concepts and does not rely on memorization. She is strong at solving word problems and has developed a certain confidence, ease and comfort with numbers.” —Rebecca R.
• “I like that classes include some form of exercise when students “skip count,” so the numbers become
engrained in their minds. I only wish I had learned math this way growing up.” —Janelle T.
• “It has made my son a math whiz — but when he does have questions I can't help.” —Michelle S.

“The program invites students to tackle difficult problems and to challenge themselves to understand the solution, not just solve for the answer,” says DiDonato, who reports that Mt. Holly students and teachers also experienced bumps when adapting to Singapore math.

Kuumba math coach Colleen Sheeron, however, says her students took to the approach instinctively. “The concrete-to-pictorial-to-abstract and simple-to-complex lesson design made learning easily accessible, especially to students who had previously struggled with math.”

Proof positive

For good or ill, curriculum success is largely measured by student performance on standardized tests. So how do local Singapore math programs stack up?

“We have seen a 10 percent increase each year” on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam, says FACT’s Fan. “In our first year, 45 percent of our students scored proficient or above; last year, that figure increased to 84 percent.”

With just one year of Math in Focus under its belt, Mt. Holly schools had mixed results on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge. “Our test scores increased in some grades and
decreased in others,” says DiDonato. He is optimistic that Singapore math will well prepare students for New Jersey’s 2014-15 test switch from the NJASK to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Career.

Kuumba saw positive results in the Delaware Student Testing Program immediately after implementing Singapore math. “When we started, everyone told us that test scores may drop, but we saw an increase,” says Sheeron. “We’ve broken the achievement gap multiple times and surpass testing results of other schools.”

Singapore math resources

Want a sample of or help deciphering Singapore math? The following links lead you to resources, games and more for students and parents.

Math Buddies

Math in Focus

Math Playground

Pinterest app roundup 

Pinterest Singapore math board

Singapore Math Bar Models app

South Jersey mom Janet Tumelty is a freelance writer.

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