Learning from Singapore’s School Success

Policymakers in Utah have been attracted to the Singapore math curriculum for some time. A recent article in the Deseret News focused attention on what can be learned from the success of the educational system in Singapore. Reporter Celia Baker considered:

The island nation of Singapore transformed itself from a third-world country to an economic powerhouse in less than a half-century by concentrating on its education system.

(ed. after visiting Singapore in 2007, I believe this transformation took less than a generation.)

Although the article refers to ‘tiger mothers,’ it seems evident that the quality of the country’s curriculum is foremost in developing successful students. Baker cited a 2010 New York Times article that stated:

In contrast to the most common math programs 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.

So, as Baker concludes, in Singapore, “Students develop a strong foundation in math under the system and can advance rapidly later on.”

Of note, in another article, reporter Baker also considered ways that Finland was able to revitalize its education system.  Baker notes:

Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond said, “Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

 What would it take to re-boot our system?



Singapore Math Slated for Study by Utah’s Legislature

In the final week of its 45 day legislative session, Utah’s House failed to pass S.B. 179, the Math Education Initiative, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper).  As reported earlier, the Senate-passed version of S.B. 179 provided incentives for schools to adopt the Singapore Math Curriculum.

Utah’s budget situation played a role in the fate of S.B. 179. However, before adjourning, the Legislature did include a Singapore Math incentive program as an item worthy of further study prior to the 2012 Session.

Under H.J. R. 24, the Master Study Resolution, the Legislature gives the Legislative Management Committee items of study for consideration prior to the 2012 Annual General Session. Items may be assigned to the appropriate interim committee, which is to study and make recommendations for legislative action in the 2012 Session.

H.J.R. 24 includes the following math study items:

  • Math Instruction – to study a proposal to provide a pilot program for incentives for Singapore math instruction.
  • Algebra and Geometry Pilot Program – to study whether to provide a pilot program for honors algebra and geometry.
  • Secondary Math Requirements – to study high school math requirements versus college readiness.

H.J.R. 24 passed both the House and Senate without opposition.


Utah’s Math Education Initiative: Incentives to Adopt Singapore Math

This week, Utah State Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) introduced legislation that would provide incentives for schools to adopt the Singapore Math Curriculum. On February 18, 2011, the Senate Education Committee passed the measure, S.B. 179-the Math Education Initiative, by a 4-2 vote.

S.B. 179 appropriates $1.813 million in ongoing Education Funds for the Math Education Initiative. It directs the Board of Education to award grants to school districts and charter schools to adopt Singapore Math ($1 million), to schools offering honors mathematics courses ($63,000) and to math teacher training programs ($750,000).

Statewide Interest in Singapore Math

During Friday’s hearing, Sen. Stephenson said:

“We have had an interest in Singapore Math being available by many parents across the state because they learn that this is a math program that is producing the best math results in the national rankings of industrialized nations. It is a very visual method, very intuitive and seems to correspond to our human ability to understand math.”

S.B. 179 uses grants, not mandates, to encourage schools to adopt Singapore Math. Sen. Stephenson said, “Mandates don’t work very well, but when we provide an incentive, it can really move the world because there’s a competitive nature to it.”

Sen. Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan), an Education Committee member, commented:

“sometimes we need to incentivize things to have them happen, but this seems to me to make so much sense. Why don’t school districts do it anyway?”

Several others spoke about S.B. 179 at the hearing.

  • JoDee Sundberg, President of the Utah School Boards Association (USBA), said that while her organization has no position on S.B. 179, they are concerned that Singapore Math materials do not support the Utah Common Core Standards. In addition, USBA is, “not supportive of any additional funding being used until we fund education and growth and some of the other areas that we have recommended.”
  • Kevin Sheridan of the consulting firm Southwest Education spoke in opposition to the bill, stating that Singapore Math materials have not been recommended by the State Instructional Materials Commission.
  • Former Rep. Laura Black expressed concerned about the cost of S.B. 179 and said that districts are working hard to improve math scores.
  • Martell Menlove, Deputy Superintendent of the Utah Board of Education, said that the Board took the position that S.B. 179 is unnecessary and, “imposes on the Board’s constitutional role in general control and supervision.” Dr. Menlove said the Board has:

“not brought a math initiative forward during the session because of the position of the State Board that our first priorities are that the basic program and that growth be funded, and not to put things in competition to that…our math initiative would be somewhat different than this…it would have more concentration on interventions for students and not the use of outside programs or to the use of outside companies to try to tell us what to do.”

  • Curtis Blanco, an electrical engineer at Hill Air Force Base and supporter of the Math Education Initiative, testified that geometry has been gutted compared to what it used to be. Blanco said that if we want to produce scientists capable of solving tough challenges like getting us to the moon, we can’t offer watered down mathematics like we are doing now.

Committee members wanted clarification about how Singapore Math aligns to the Common Core.

What’s Next

S.B. 179 now moves to the full Senate. Sen. Stephenson acknowledged that the amount of the appropriation sought in S.B. 179 is an issue, but that the initiative is worthy of consideration on the Floor. Utah’s legislative session is 45 days long, with the 2011 session to conclude on March 10.