One School’s Challenges with Singapore Math

D.C.’s Bruce-Monroe school faces challenges as it tries Singapore math method
The Washington Post 6/6/2011

If you’ve been wondering what the difficulties are when implementing Singapore math, look no further. This school in D.C. has them all; school closures, lack of enough professional development, mobile student and teacher population, and it’s a dual-language school. Standardized test scores dropped significantly after the change to Singapore math.

The story  evoked responses from many in education. Joane Jacobs mused:

The fact that it ( Singapore Math) requires elementary teachers to understand math well has to be a serious obstacle.

In a letter to the editor dated June 14, 2011, Dr. Alan Ginsburg suggested that the problem at Bruce-Monroe may be bigger than just the Singapore math adoption. He pointed out that the school’s reading scores

declined by 15 percentage points in a single year, and Hispanic students’ scores declined by 21 percentage points.

Bill Jackson, in another great Daily Riff article (Going Beyond Singapore Math: Resisting Quick Fixes), ennumerates the complex issues behind plunking a program like Singapore math into the American classroom.

While most educators familiar with Singapore math agree that it is not the oft-quoted “silver bullet”, Jackson reminds us that:

if we keep throwing out promising ideas just because they don’t immediately improve scores on tests whose quality is questionable at best we’re doomed to repeating the haphazard and fragmented reform efforts that got us here in the first place.

He closes with a word to schools that are currently using Singapore math:

I would like to say that you are definitely moving in the right direction. There will be challenges along the way but they are the same ones you would face with any math program and they can be overcome if you understand the bigger issues behind effective math teaching and learning.

Faced with so many challenges, it’s impressive that Bruce Monroe’s  instructional coach, Nuhad Jamal remains upbeat about the school’s Singapore math adoption.

 

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Successful implementation: Buying books is just the first step

Schools considering Singapore Math programs in their schools frequently ask me what the biggest challenges are when adopting  the curriculum. Let me give you an example from a third grade classroom I visited recently.

The math period started with a mad math minute type of activity of either addition or subtraction, depending where the students were working.  For the lessons on multiplication and division by 8’s and 9’s, the teacher chose to list the tables from 2 x 8 through 9 x 8 on the whiteboard and have the students copy them down, like this:

Next, the teacher had the students make flash cards and quiz each other.  Finally, in a class of 27, they played around the world. The game where two students compete against each other to see who can get the answer to the problem on the flash card faster.

The lesson in the textbook does include some multiplication charts. The textbook was open on the teacher’s desk and she did refer to it at least once during the lesson:

Primary Mathematics 3A Textbook, U.S. Edition:

Notice how the textbook draws out a student’s prior knowledge to show the patterns behind the computation?

The 3A Teacher’s Guide includes a more comprehensive lesson based on a deeper understanding of the number 8 and it’s multiples. I couldn’t find it in the room.

(Click to enlarge)

Can you see the difference in the depth of a student’s understanding  after the Primary Mathematics lesson?

Note that the subsequent three lessons are:

  • Multiplying a 2 or 3 digit number by 8.
  • Dividing a 2 or 3 digit number by 8.
  • Word problems that require multiplying and dividing by 8.

The sequence of lessons follows the same pattern for the number 9.

When I asked the teacher about the lesson, she essentially said, “well, I didn’t think to look at the teacher’s guide. I’ve always taught this way.” She’s new to the school and only had about 2 hours of training.

Back to the original question. One of the biggest challenges for schools adopting the Singapore Math curriculum is the need for adequate training. If teachers don’t understand what makes Singapore different or if they lack content knowledge,  they’ll continue to teach the way they always have. Effective training will give teachers an understanding of Singapore Math’s philosophy and approach and leave them with confidence in their ability to teach it.

Buying the curriculum is the first step. Successful schools invest in content-based training.

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