Researchers Cite Uniform Standards in Singapore’s Success

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Singapore’s domination over the United States in students’ math performance stems from the Southeast Asian country’s uniform expectations for student learning, its use of textbooks rich with problem-solving exercises, and a commitment to producing well-trained teachers, a report to be released this week finds.

The United States, by contrast, lacks consistent standards for teaching the subject, according to the study, “What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System.” The report also says that American textbooks emphasize “definitions and formulas” at the expense of broader mathematical understanding.

In addition, it says, standardized exams in this country do not present challenging mathematics, compared with required tests in Singapore. And far too many American teachers are unprepared to cover core subject matter, contends the report by the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit Washington-based organization that focuses on behavioral and social-science issues.

Singaporean students’ math scores, traditionally among the highest in the world, ranked first among all nations, and well above the United States’, on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study that came out in December. ("Poor Math Scores on World Stage Trouble U.S.," Jan. 5, 2005.)

As the authors of the new study note, the American educational structure differs from Singapore’s in many ways, notably in not having a mandatory national curriculum.

The report offers recommendations for improving the U.S. system that include encouraging states to align their grade-by-grade math-content requirements to more closely resemble Singapore’s. It also suggests that the United States at least consider more sweeping changes.

Numbers and Pictures

“The U.S. has a decentralized system. We have many textbooks that must meet the needs of many masters,” said Steven J. Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the AIR and one of the study’s authors. “We need to have an open mind about things like a national curriculum and a national assessment.”

Singapore’s teachers receive superior training before and after they enter classrooms, the report says. It also notes that the country of 4.3 million people provides its academically at-risk students with “expert” teachers to help them learn math.

The study also evaluates four U.S. districts that have experimented with Singaporean textbooks in place of their regular texts. In the 139,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district, for example, four schools took part in a pilot project; their success varied according to how much professional training teachers were given, the report says. Robyn Silbey, the mathematics-content coach at Summit Hall Elementary School who helped implement that program, said that participating teachers committed themselves to many hours of training to familiarize themselves with the Singapore model.

The texts from Singapore were strikingly different from U.S. ones in some respects, Ms. Silbey said. They emphasized composition and decomposition of numbers, a way of breaking them apart to understand pieces of their sum totals, in a process that eventually led students to more complex lessons on grouping of numbers. Singapore’s lessons also put a much stronger emphasis on using illustrations and diagrams in mathematics, she said, an approach that fostered problem-solving skills.

“It’s very powerful,” Ms. Silbey said of the more visual strategy.

Vol. 24, Issue 22, Page 10

Published in Print: February 9, 2005, as Researchers Cite Uniform Standards in Singapore’s Success
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