Mathematics

U.S., Singapore Agree to Cooperate on Math and Science

By David J. Hoff — September 18, 2002 3 min read
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Just as mathematics textbooks from Singapore have built a following among educators in America, the Southeast Asian nation is looking to the United States for models of science curricula.

The United States has many examples in which students learn scientific concepts through activities and experiments designed to demonstrate those principles, Singapore’s top school official said last week.

Those are the kinds of ideas the 500,000-student national education system is hoping to infuse into its science curriculum, according to Minister of Education Teo Chee Hean.

“There is a lot of innovation and creative practice in the United States,” Mr. Teo said in an interview last week. “There is very good practical and experienced- based learning for students in science.”

Mr. Teo traveled here to sign a memorandum of understanding with Secretary of Education Rod Paige in which Singapore and the United States agreed to help each other improve math and science education.

The six-page document says the two countries will compare their math and science curricula, share effective practices in teacher preparation and professional development, and seek ways to raise student achievement in the subjects.

“Singapore’s students score among the highest in the world in mathematics and science,” Mr. Paige said in a statement about the agreement, “and there is much we can learn about its system of education which leads to such high achievement.”

Hands-On Interest

In the first formal event in the new relationship, officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Education last week conducted seminars at the Department of Education describing their country’s mathematics curriculum to U.S. educators.

Singapore’s math textbooks have intrigued American educators since the nation outscored the rest of the world in an international test of 4th and 8th graders’ mathematics knowledge. The country’s 8th graders again topped the world when the tests were given at that grade level in 1999.

Since the first results from the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study were released in 1996, American educators have started to purchase Singaporean math programs for public and private schools. (“U.S. Schools Importing Singaporean Texts,” Sept. 27, 2000.) More than 100 elementary schools in the United States are using Singaporean textbooks, according to singaporemath.com, the Oregon City, Ore.-based distributor of the books.

Singapore’s performance in science, however, is not as strong in the early grades. On the 1995 TIMSS, the country’s 4th graders fell in the middle of the pack. But in the 1995 TIMSS and its 1999 repeat, the country’s 8th grade science scores were at the top of the scale.

Because curriculum decisions are made locally in the United States, Mr. Teo said, Americans have devised a wide range of programs, many of which he called “exciting, interesting, and accessible.”

One science education expert said Singapore’s interest in U.S. science education is not surprising.

“The folks from Singapore have been very interested in how you educate for entrepreneurship and creativity,” said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, based in Washington.

American schools, she said, excel at hands-on science activities in which students see scientific principles at work, especially in the early grades.

Math Tinkering

While Singapore will be looking to America for bold ideas in science education, the Asian country will be tinkering with its mathematics curriculum, Mr. Teo said.

Singapore will incorporate new topics into its math program that emphasize the application of math skills, he said.

“It’s a slight shift in emphasis,” he said. “We want to maintain the rigor in our system.”

The pact between the United States and Singapore formally starts Oct. 1 and will lapse Dec. 31, 2005.

In addition to working jointly on curricula, Mr. Teo said, he hopes the agreement will yield teacher exchanges between the countries.

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