Singapore Math: Ending the Spiral of Non-Mastery

Singapore is a world leader in math education, but that wasn’t always the case. Starting in 1980, Singapore began to develop its own curriculum instead of importing textbooks from other countries with dramatic results. Singapore’s students skyrocketed from 16th of 26th in the Second International Science Study (SISS) rankings in 1984 to 1st in 1995. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) undertaken in over 40 countries, Singapore has ranked 1st in three of the four administrations. The US has only ranked in the top 10 countries for math once.

The curriculum is not a secret, and many US schools have implemented the country’s math and science programs since Singapore Math Inc brought it to the US in 1998. STC School Harlem Academy implemented Singapore Math in 2008, the first school in Manhattan to do so. Head of School Vinny Dotoli said he saw “double-digit growth in students’ quantitative reasoning scores in a single year.”

The curriculum aligns with US standards, but there are major differences in the delivery compared to standard American teaching methods. Vinny Dotoli clued me in on the contrasts. Traditionally about 30 math concepts can be covered in one year using a spiral approach that introduces concepts and revisits them with added complexity. This method “does not expect mastery,” leaving some students bored when a concept is revisited, and moving on before it’s fully grasped by other students. If a concept is not fully internalized, it’s understandably difficult for a student (or his teacher) to pick up exactly where his progress last stood, also hindering teacher accountability for student performance.

In contrast, Singapore Math covers 10-14 concepts a year, stays with each 2-3 weeks, and expects mastery before introducing a new lesson.

While he says “teachers like it,” Vinny advises that Singapore Math teachers be equipped with a “strong math core” relevant to their instruction, because they “can’t teach [Singapore Math] on autopilot.” Harlem Academy’s teachers attend a minimum week long summer institute in preparation for the year, because they must be engaged and engaging. Should we expect anything less of teachers?

Harlem Academy has seen more than statistically significant differences in student performance after switching to Singapore Math. Anecdotally, Vinny reports “more positive engagement among students. Traditionally,” he explains, “kids who do well in math like math, and kids who struggle don’t like it.” With Singapore Math, all students are more interested. Because it’s frequently reported that boys perform better than girls in math, he’s seen the surprise on a visitor’s face when a female student names math as her favorite subject and the subsequent confusion of the student when her answer is greeted with exclamations of amazement.

Visit the Singapore Math website for more.