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Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Expert Exports

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One of Singapore's most talked about exports these days is neither the computer equipment from its factories nor the chemicals from its laboratories.

It's mathematics textbooks.

Singaporean publishers can thank the Third International Mathematics and Science Study for the new business. Elementary and middle school students in the 247-square-mile Southeast Asian nation ranked first in the world on the math portions of the TIMSS, an international study of student achievement conducted during 1994 and 1995. Singaporean students out-computed and out-reasoned their counterparts in 39 other countries, including such educational powerhouses as Japan and Taiwan. They also outscored students in Belgium, Canada, France, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. And they beat the United States.

Now, scattered groups of educators in this country are hoping the textbooks from that island nation hold the secret to Singaporean students' success. Sales of the books, which are published in English, have grown since 1998, according to their sole U.S. distributor, a West Linn, Oregon, firm named Family Things. The mom-and-pop company doesn't track sales closely, but it says it has filled orders for several thousand of the paperbacks so far this school year. And the volumes are going to a wide range of educators, including homeschoolers, private school operators, and public schools from Colorado to Maryland.

Primarily black and white, the books contain none of the colorful, eye-popping graphics that many American publishers use to grab students' attention. But admirers praise the texts for their clear, simple prose, their novel problem-solving approaches, and the complex, multistep problems they give students, beginning in 1st grade. "I think these books really empower students as problem solvers," says Felicity Messner Ross, a math teacher at Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore. "So, if they see a problem they've never seen before, they'll think they have the tools to solve it."

Unlike American texts, the books introduce algebra in the elementary grades. Though they use word problems that seem more at home in high school texts, kids devise answers using pictorial strategies, not algebraic equations. "There is a great insistence on full understanding and an avoidance of mindless rituals that lead to a solution," says Yoram Sagher, a mathematics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Funded in part by the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation, a Chicago-based family philanthropy, Sagher crisscrosses the country helping teachers learn to use the Singapore texts.

In Baltimore, Ross' 6th and 7th graders are taking part in a privately subsidized, citywide program aimed at grooming mathematically talented students. The kids clearly like the Singapore texts. "They're a lot more challenging than our other books," says 7th grader Renae Mitchell, "but that's, like, a good thing." Kids welcome the fact that the texts are thinner and lighter than most American-made books, but they occasionally stumble on the many unfamiliar names, British-flavored spellings and terms, and metric measurements. "Mr. Chen has to drive to Malacca, which is 240 km from Singapore," begins one problem in a 5th grade text. "If his car can travel 15 km on 1 litre of petrol, how many litres of petrol does he need for the trip?" Seventh grader Kyle Halle-Erby says, "Every once in a while, there'll be some words we don't understand, but Ms. Ross explains them to us, so it's no big deal."

Though it's not certain whether the textbooks are boosting student performance, some graduates of the program, known as the Ingenuity Project, have gone on to receive honors in local and national mathematics competitions. Two 9th graders scored in the top 1 percent on a national mathematics competition last February.

Schools in Chicago as well as Montgomery County, Maryland, and Paterson, New Jersey, are also piloting the books for more heterogeneous student populations, including some children who find school a struggle.

The lessons in the Singapore math books are not always aligned with American trends and local or national math standards. "My sense is that some of the ideas about what's important in algebra are probably missing," says Gail Burrill, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which created a set of widely adopted math standards in the early 1990s. "The emphasis in NCTM is on children making sense of things, exploring and investigating patterns, and building skills and conceptual understanding. A lot of the conceptual understanding that we would think is important is not evident from looking at this material."

But Burrill, director of the National Research Council's Mathematical Sciences Education Board in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that she's taken only a cursory look at the books. In their favor, she says, the Singaporean texts lay out a coherent curriculum and avoid needless repetition. "I would hope that districts are paying attention to what's in the books, but I also hope they would understand these are books used by a different culture, a culture that is more homogeneous and a culture that has a consistent way of thinking about mathematics," she says.

Though Singaporeans speak a mix of languages, more than 90 percent of the 4.2 million residents of the former British colony are literate. The central Ministry of Education develops textbooks in every subject, and students pay a fee to use them. Singaporean parents, like those in other Southeast Asian countries, also typically supplement their children's learning with after- school tutoring sessions.

All the buzz aside, even proponents of the Singapore texts say American teachers need tutoring to use the books well. "These books are not what the current generation of teachers knows how to deal with," says Madge Goldman, president of the Rosenbaum Foundation. "The material is only part of the story."

Vol. 12, Issue 3, Pages 18-19

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