Is Singapore Math Not Working for Your School?

Is Singapore math not working for your school? Have your school district switched to using Singapore math curriculum a few years ago, promising better mathematics instructions and deeper conceptual understanding, only to find that not only has test scores not improved, but more teachers are feeling frustrated about adopting the new methods they are not used to teaching? Did you find it impossible to get through the whole curriculum within the school year, causing teachers in subsequent years to spend additional classroom hours to “back-fill” what kids did not learn?

We were very sad to read a recent news article about how a particular school district in Connecticut is thinking of expanding a pilot “Additional Instructional Math” program, which was introduced earlier this year on top of regular math intervention, because as much as a sixth of the students whose math performance are below grade level are not receiving the proper math intervention help they need.

Many reasons for the performance gap were cited by the article, e.g. changes in state testing resulting from the shift to Common Core, the method used to stream students onto accelerated math tracks etc. One particular poignant reason was the “rough implementation” of a new math curriculum a few years back.

In 2012 (more than 5 years ago!), the district had adopted the “Singapore math” curriculum, but had not invested enough time to train the teachers and schools. As a result,

“…teachers did not feel they had sufficient training beforehand. Some teachers weren’t even able to get through the whole curriculum within the school year, Smith said, which then created the need for teachers in subsequent years to back-fill what kids did not learn — on top of the curriculum they needed to teach.”

How To Make It Work

This is indeed what we have seen ourselves when we were invited to provide professional development support for schools which had just adopted the Singapore math curriculum, and it truly saddens us. This is the main reason why we started this website – to provide training and support for teachers new to the Singapore math methods. So, this is what we want to say to schools or district who are switching to the Singapore math curriculum, are thinking of switching, or are wondering why Singapore math is not working for them:

School Leaders – Teachers need more than one PD training to adequately prepare themselves for a new math approach. The curriculum materials consist of a set of textbooks, workbooks and teachers guides. They are not meant to replace experience. Teachers need year-round support, not just as a source to ask technical questions about new techniques such as bar models or number bonds, but also to discover what they don’t know, and what other grade level teachers are teaching. They shouldn’t have to wait till the next summer to ask these questions at another PD workshop. They need to get answers quickly throughout the year.

Teachers – Do not second guess the overall effectiveness of the curriculum, or sit on the side-line wondering if the district is going to switch to another fancy curriculum again in a few years time. The Singapore based curriculum works – it is based on years of research and best practices. Have faith and dig in to fully understand the “new” instructional methods and tools. Internalize and reflect on how they are better or worse than other “traditional” or more familiar methods. Question and discuss with your math coach or other teachers, if you feel strongly against a particular pedagogical approach. At the end of the day, your students need you to show them the path. You need to spend the time to understand how to operate the lamp before you step into the classroom.

Parents – You may be the most important link in determining the success of the new curriculum. We understand why you don’t have time to relearn how to solve multiplication and division word problems using a strange bar model method. We also get your frustration when your kid comes home and tell you the method you’re using is not what the teacher teaches in school (yes, we can solve complex word problems in elementary school without using algebra or linear systems of equations). Have faith in your school and teachers, and be patient. They are working hard to learn a new way of teaching your kids. Support them by spending time to learn about the new methods, attend school math nights, work on the problems together with your children, ask questions.

We Can Help

Please do not wait till 5 years later to realize things are not working for you. A kid would have gone through elementary school in that time! Contact us if you need PD support individually or at your school. Seek out a local PD provider who specialize in the curriculum you are using, or sign up for our membership program. If you need help convincing your district or school or PTA/PTO to pay for the subscription fees, let us know. We have group programs for schools and districts. As teachers who have been teaching the Singapore math curriculum in both Singapore public schools and the U.S., we would love to help.

What You Can Do

The school year will be over sooner than you think. So what can you do if you’re a teacher in your first year (or second or third…) implementing the Singapore math curriculum and still scratching your head when you try to come up with the appropriate bar model to use for a fractions word problem? Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a plan. Don’t just rely on the teachers guide or worse, the table of contents. Figure out exactly what you need to teach by the end of the year and which are the major clusters to focus on. Have a set of lesson plans, and pace yourself accordingly.
  • Keep learning and reflecting on teaching methodologies. Compare them with more traditional techniques and find out if they are better. If not, talk to someone (see below) and see if there are better ways to teach than the method used in the textbooks.
  • Contact a more experienced math coach who understands Singapore based methods, or join an online (or offline) math teacher community that focuses on Singapore based approach. Have a reliable channel to ask questions and clarify doubts, especially in the first few years of implementing the curriculum.
  • Look for additional resources. In our own practice, we find that students need more practice exercises, in addition to the workbooks, to fully understand and internalize certain topics. Find additional worksheets that are aligned with the curriculum you’re using, and use them to evaluate your students’ understanding too.
  • Talk to teachers of other grade levels, understand why in-coming students from the previous grades are not prepared and how to fill the gaps effectively. Know what you should focus on during the year so that students will learn better in the next grade. Share your experience – some of the new techniques introduced at lower grades may help teachers of higher grades understand why students are not getting certain concepts.

Do you have other suggestions? Have you also felt that more could be done to help your school switch to the Singapore math curriculum? Or if you have a success story with the switch, please share your experience so other teachers can learn from them!



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