Singapore Math Meeting
(American Text Series vs. Singapore...can you say "cash cow"?)
Additional Information about Singapore Math:
Article on Singapore Math by Barry Garelick and John Hoven
Comparing Singapore to Investigations Math: http://www.nychold.com/art-raimi-050708.html
http://www.oaknorton.com/mathupdates/20060426.cfm (includes pdf sample packet of homework examples)
Last Thursday (June 12, 2008) I was privileged to attend Dr. Yeap Ban Har's informative lecture on Singapore math and other general concepts from their country's education system. Two articles have been shown in the press and there's a lot of buzz around the state office about the merits of this program. Here are some things I found interesting from the presentation.
As a nation they have a mission statement that reads: "nurture knowledge workers through ability driven education." Their short history as a country exemplifies what can be done in a very short period of time for people who put their priorities in the right order.
-In 1965 they were given the boot from Malaysia because (as he put it) they (Malaysia) didn't want them anymore. :)
-For the next 10 years they had an education system that consisted of reaching out to people on the street asking if they wanted to teach their children in the classroom. Whoever was willing had a job.
-From 1975-1985 they made improvements, specifically focusing on the 1980 NCTM standards and looking at what America and Britain were doing.
-In 1992 they made major changes in the way they were teaching math and developed what we call today "Singapore Math"
-Modifications followed and in 2001 they came out with their strongest program yet. The philosophy of the program can be summed up in this statement: "We are not teaching math, we are teaching thinking through the medium of math."
Singapore classes have about 40 students per class. In first and second grade they have about 30. Their philosophy is they would rather have large classes with teachers who really want to be there than small classes with teachers that don't want to be there.
Classes are self-directed, ability driven, and students can progress at their own pace. If they are able to skip ahead a grade, they are allowed to.
Teachers in their country are paid a little less than they would make in a profession for which they are teaching (ie. if you have math skills and want to be a teacher, you'll make a little less than a person would make in industry so that teachers are there because they really want to be).
The nation has no welfare system, no social security, and no dropouts from school. The children and parents all know that there's no safety net and so they view education as the only way to survive. However, that does NOT mean they go to extremes in their system. Due to a lack of buildings, there are two school sessions a day for grades 1-6 (there's NO kindergarten). One from 7:30 am to 1:00 pm and one from 1:30 to 6:00 pm. I must have missed getting one of the times correctly because those are obviously not equivalent times. They also don't serve lunch at the elementaries and just let kids head home after school unless they are staying for extracurricular activities. For grades 7-10 the school day is 7:30 am to 2:00 pm.
After grade 10, students enter junior college for two year. I wish I could recall more of what he said about that system...
Upon graduation from high school (and I think this is grade 10) those students who want to become teachers are hired by the Ministry of Education and paid to complete college with the understanding that they will serve for at least 3 years as a teacher. If you don't fill that time you have to pay for your education.
At the end of sixth grade, all students are required to take an end of level exam in order to move on to seventh grade. This is a high-stakes test where if you don't pass it, you don't proceed. A portion of the exam (30%) is just basics but when he showed us some example problems they were plenty difficult. Out of 500,000 students in their system (which I suppose is roughly 50,000 per grade 1-10), only 100 or so don't pass this exam. Those students will repeat 6th grade concepts till they are ready to move on. Top scorers on the exam have the opportunity to place their children in the very best 7-10 schools.
Tests in Singapore are graded on a 75% and above is an A. They give very hard tests to find who their top students are. Students who score 90% and above understand they may be smarter than their teacher. :) This was said by Dr. Yeap. Ten years ago most elementary teachers in the country did not have college degrees (I think it was like 80-90% but I'm not sure now). The curriculum and training for it was sufficient to produce the incredible educational outcomes that we see on international tests (TIMSS exam). Today, about half of their elementary school teachers have a college degree but the number has risen steadily. They also emphasize teachers should have content knowledge of the subject.
Tests typically consist of 20% multiple choice questions and 80% written problems so students have to show their work.
To those who say the only reason their test scores are so great is because they put so much emphasis on education that everything else lacks and they do hours of homework a day, you're completely misinformed. Children in elementary school typically have an hour or at most an hour and a half of homework a night. This would include math, reading, writing in a journal, and anything else. Parents are encourage to create a learning atmosphere by not playing the TV while their children do their homework, and are encouraged to sit next to their children while they do homework, but many of the parents aren't very educated either so it's really up to the teachers and system they use to teach their children.
Singapore emphasizes the mental aspects of math and using short term memory to hold things in your head while you solve a problem. When they found students were getting overwhelmed with too many topics during a school year they came out with a slogan "teach less, learn more" to help direct teachers to spend adequate time on subject matter. They continuously improve their system in this manner.
One recent change is that they have introduced calculators starting in 5th grade to let students avoid "tedious" problems. If there is a concept the students have mastered (and all facts are mastered by the end of 4th grade) they will let them do it on the calculator because they know that concept.
To those who think Singapore math is fuzzy, you're dead wrong. It's got a very rigorous curriculum and the fact mastery early on which produces a very solid foundation in grades 1-4 to prepare students to excel as they approach algebra. Singapore and Saxon math are both integrated programs meaning once you complete grades 1-6, the upper grade material is not segregated like most programs that call for algebra 1, 2, geometry, trig, and calculus. They mix and match concepts from all those materials to let them all build on each other. Saxon has taken a beating for this in Utah and the rest of the country and this year they are coming out with discrete programs for algebra 1, 2, and geometry, with at least trig to follow next year. California has some math educators pushing for probability and stats in elementary school so there is a new CA-Standards edition just released for grades 1-5 and a rewrite of 6-8 coming. I'm not sure about the 7th/8th grade work, but from what I hear we should be sticking with the 2001 Primary Math edition of Singapore math and leaving stats for high school.
When asked why their students do well on the TIMSS exam, he said:
-Students have high educational aspirations and attitudes toward math
-Education resources are available at home and school (and parents purchase students workbooks so they are invested in the process)
-School climate and safety of the students
The Singapore method really shows what can happen when an education system is built around the end product. There's no socialism blocking progress. There is no safety net, there are no dropouts, there is educational excellence, there are well paid teachers (only one factor), there is a rigorous curriculum, students are well behaved, students have moral education classes, students perform extracurricular activities like sports and music, students perform community service, and the education system ignores all the publishers pushing their wares to find what really works well and then tweaks it instead of experimenting on their children with unproven fuzzy garbage.
I should also note that Singapore Math books are quite inexpensive. For students there are two textbooks and workbooks. One for each half of the year. Each book is about $7-8. That means consumables are about $14-16 RETAIL price and thus there's very little copying needed. None for homework unless a teacher feels strongly about supplementing a concept.
Dr. David Wright sent out an email which reminded me of a couple other things that are important to mention. The Singapore books are designed so that the teacher learns the math they are teaching as well. As I mentioned above, Singapore has had undereducated teachers teaching the classes and so the books had to be designed for them as well as the students.
Also, the teachers are very motivated by the difficult tests their students must perform on. There is a bit of social status to having your students do well on tests (as there is here), but more emphasis is put on the "value added" nature of classes where a teacher who gets a class that isn't performing as well really brings them up to speed.
Singapore teachers also teach all the grades so a 4th grade teacher knows what is going to be expected in 5th and 6th grade. Teachers do well with the program because they are taught how to teach this particular program and not a generic program.