Wednesday, February 16, 2005

What we can learn from Singapore's math

A major study by the American Institutes for Research compares math instruction in the U.S and Singapore.

Here are major findings:

Analysis of these evidentiary streams finds Singaporean students more successful in
mathematics than their U.S. counterparts because Singapore has a world-class mathematics system
with quality components aligned to produce students who learn mathematics to mastery. These
components include Singapore’s highly logical national mathematics framework, mathematically
rich problem-based textbooks, challenging mathematics assessments, and highly qualified
mathematics teachers whose pedagogy centers on teaching to mastery. Singapore also provides its
mathematically slower students with an alternative framework and special assistance from an expert

The U.S. mathematics system does not have similar features. It lacks a centrally identified
core of mathematical content that provides a focus for the rest of the system. Its traditional textbooks
emphasize definitions and formulas, not mathematical understanding; its assessments are not
especially challenging; and too many U.S. teachers lack sound mathematics preparation. At-risk
students often receive special assistance from a teacher’s aide who lacks a college degree. As a
result, the United States produces students who have learned only to mechanically apply
mathematical procedures to solve routine problems and who are, therefore, not mathematically
competitive with students in most other industrialized countries.

I am surprised that the study claims that in the U.S. "[i]ts traditional textbooks emphasize definitions and formulas."

What about the widespread use of fuzzy math books like

Everyday Mathematics (K-6)

TERC's Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (K-5)

Connected Mathematics (6-8)?


Anonymous said...

This study reviews 2 American textbooks as part of the study. It compares a traditional textbook used in the USA to a nontraditional, which happens to be Everyday Math. It then compares both to the Singapore textbooks. Singapore textbooks come out ahead on every score accept for 21st century math. (This basically means interpreting data) I am a former teacher and am now homeschooling my children. We use Singapore Math and I am completely sold on the program. My children's grasp of mathematical concepts, reasoning, problem solving and computation have soared. Read the report as it is quite interesting!

EdWonk said...

One thing that the study might have missed is that (many think this, I don't know what research says) that the typical student in Singapore approaches school work with the notion that it is his or her "duty" to do their best work.

Once they get to middle school and high school, many American students do not approach school work with an eye toward it being a "duty" to do their best.

Is there any research to support this?

Stiles said...

I have skimmed the report and am looking forward to reading it in depth. What impresses me so far is that AIR focused on math education as a system. Not just the textbook series, not just the assessments, but also teacher expertise and curricular alignment. Too often our public debate over attends to textbook and assessment issues at the expense of looking at math education systemically. Maybe it's the American tradition, but we seem to be more hodge-podge in our approach than Singapore.

The other thing that jumps out at first glance is how well Everyday Math came off in comparison to Scott Foresman. In virtually every respect, the non-traditional textbook was judged superior to the traditional text. In all the criticism heaped on the reform texts, we frequently forget how wretched the traditional texts (which are in the majority of classrooms) really are. Of course the report also finds the Singapore text as superior in many aspects to Everyday Math. One of the report's recommendations is that we build on the non-traditional texts by adding more conceptual content to bring them up to Singapore's quality.

It is interesting to see a report that is highly laudatory of Singapore's system of math education that ranks Everyday Math vs. Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Math very differently than Mathematically Correct.

Stiles said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The AIR report is fascinating!

But a curious quirk with the report is that as its token "traditionalist" math program to be used for comparisons AIR chose Scott Foresman Addison Wesley Math. This is hardly a "traditionalist" program! The only conceivable way that this mess could be considered "traditional" is that it is SFAW's only "push" product that is vaguely more practice-oriented than its more thoroughly orthodox constructivist programs.

SFAW Math is a pyrotechnic Tokyo-by-Night disaster, that tries to shoehorn in every known theory of math education. Since it tries to be everything to everyone, SFAW Math is bulging at the seams in size and mass (a problem pointed out in the AIR report), but nonetheless manages to shortchange just about everyone's POV. It's not going to make ANY educator very happy, regardless of whether they lean towards practice-to-mastery vs. constructivism, teams vs. drills, or spiraling vs. continuous reinforcement.

For more on SFAW Math including two reviews, see

Kevin Killion