A Tale Told by an Idiot, Dept.

Yet another article on Singapore Math, which in the end signifies nothing. In fact, this one could probably be used as a template for so-called education reporters when they write about math education.

It starts out well enough with a very concise history of the program that was developed in Singapore:

What is referred to as Singapore Math in other countries is, for Singapore, simply math. The program was developed under the supervision of the Singaporean Minister of Education and introduced as the Primary Mathematics Series in 1982. For close to 20 years, this program remained the only series used in Singaporean classrooms.

In fact, the “Primary Math” series is simple and effective and has been used by many homeschoolers in the US for many years.  Some mathematicians (Richard Askey from U of Wisconsin among them) revamped the series for use in U.S. classrooms so that it used U.S. currency and English system measures (in addition to the metric system). It was called Primary Math, U.S. edition.

Over the years, the Primary Math series in Singapore was replaced by “new and improved” versions that in the opinion of many users of the original series, was watered down and prone to some of the U.S. reform ideas, such as increased use of calculators. Nevertheless, enough of the main tenets of the original Primary math series have remained in the subsequent editions so that the textbooks still stand out.

The article leads with this precis of the framework of Singapore Math:

The framework of Singapore Math is developed around the idea that learning to problem-solve and develop mathematical thinking are the key factors in being successful in math.

Ignoring for the moment the trendy use of “problem-solve” as a verb (instead of saying “learning to solve problems”), the above intro is not bad unto itself. But, not to disappoint, things go predictably downhill with the analysis of “pros and cons” of Singapore Math.

Actually the listing of the “pros” of Singapore Math are not bad; hard to disagree with these, for example:

  • Textbooks and workbooks are simple to read with concise graphics.
  • Textbooks are sequential, building on previously learned concepts and skills, which offers the opportunity for learning acceleration without the need for supplemental work.

But then we have the obligatory “not like traditional math” narrative:

  • Asks for students to build meaning to learn concepts and skills, as opposed to rote memorization of rules and formulas.

Yes, it does require students to learn concepts and skills and provides a contextual background for how the rules work. But so did many textbooks of the past which I’ve talked about extensively.  And it isn’t like teachers don’t teach the conceptual underpinnings.  Caricaturizing traditional math approaches as “rote” never gets old, though, as the writer of the article shows.

But moving on to the “cons” of Singapore Math, things get really interesting.  We start with “Requires extensive and ongoing teacher training, which is neither financially or practically feasible in a number of school districts.”

Yes, it does require some teacher training, but if you’re going to complain about financial burdens and practical feasibility, why not take a look at the Professional Development (PD) seminars teachers are forced to attend to learn the “Common Core way” and other topics.  For example, I was asked to attend six off-site workshops to “collaborate” with other math teachers in the county in order to learn innovative approaches to achieve the Common Core’s “Standards of Mathematical Practices (SMPs)”.  Aside from the impracticality of missing six days of instruction time, there was also the financial burden of hiring a sub for me for six days.  Then there was also the PD itself which was all trendy talk about how math has been about “answer getting” when the process is key and other balderdash that passes as educational wisdom while padding someone’s resume.

Then there’s this:

  • Less of a focus on applied mathematics than traditional U.S. math textbooks. For instance, the Everyday Mathematics program emphasizes data analysis using real-life, multiple step math problems, while Singapore Math’s approach is more ideological.

Less focus on applied math than traditional textbooks? Really?  Primary math is all about applied math, but the term “applied math” has a different meaning when talking about math education these days. It used to be we could talk about students learning to solve problems.  But “solving problems” in today’s edu-lexicon means the standard one-answer, non-open-ended type of problems (like “Johnny had 5 apples and gave some away. He has three apples left. How many did he give away?”) which is viewed as “dull, boring and deemed to not imbue students with a problem solving “schema”.  Furthermore, the problems are viewed as contrived, and not something they would use in “real life” (even though they are very applicable to real life).

Actually, Singapore Math provides challenging multi-step problems which enable students to generalize problem-solving procedures to solve a variety of different problems.  But the author would rather compare Singapore Math to Everyday Mathematics whose “discovery” and “spiral” approach provides little to no background in how to solve much of anything.  See this article to get an inkling or talk to any parent whose child has had to endure Everyday Math.) Apparently, Everyday Math is now incorporating “data analysis” to go along with the latest shiny new trend to teach statistical concepts in K-6.

What the author means by Singapore’s approach being more “ideological” is anyone’s guess, but it presents a damned-if-you-do, and damned-if-you-don’t mentality. On the one hand, presenting problems that involve computation is held in disdain because it doesn’t present the real beauty of math. But then there are complaints that math is presented as too abstract (a complaint generally leveled at algebra courses) and the reason students don’t like it is because it isn’t relevant.  So I guess data analysis is the new middle ground–everybody is happy learning about frequency histograms, box and whisker plots, and mean absolute deviations in the sixth grade.

Finally there is this:

Doesn’t work well for a nomadic student population. Many students move in and out of school districts, which isn’t a big problem when the math programs are similar. However, since Singapore Math is so sequential and doesn’t re-teach concepts or skills, using the program may set these students up for failure, whether they’re moving into or out of a district using it.

Apparently, the author of the article and many others believe the premise upon which Common Core was sold: i..e., that the U.S. student population is largely nomadic with huge movement into and out of states and school districts on a constant basis.  This belief persists despite evidence to the contrary obtained by a glance at U.S. Census data.  And even if it were the case that the U.S. is nomadic, that shouldn’t be a problem since there are now Common Core aligned Singapore Math books which teach to the same standards as all the other states.  Of particular interest, however, is the statement that “Singapore Math is so sequential and doesn’t re-teach concepts or skills.”  Actually, it does–it just takes up where it left off in the previous grade, like most textbooks do.  Maybe it doesn’t spend as much time with review as others, but one can always build in reviews as needed.

But finding problems where none exist is the bread and butter of many edu-writers these days.  And unfortunately, ignoring the real problems that accompany many of the student-centered, inquiry-based approaches that are increasingly popular in K-6 is another.




6 thoughts on “A Tale Told by an Idiot, Dept.

  1. Pingback: A Tale Told by an Idiot, Dept. — traditional math – Nonpartisan Education Group

  2. I could dissect this, but let me focus on these two:

    “Materials are consumable and must be re-ordered for every classroom every year. This can put a huge financial burden on already strained school budgets.”

    Has she looked at the cost of Everyday Math for consumables? Publishers just love modern K-6 math curricula. In high school for my son’s traditional AP math track classes, they used good ol’ student covered textbooks. I still have my son’s old consumable EM workbooks to review and once again be horrified.

    “Less of a focus on applied mathematics than traditional U.S. math textbooks. For instance, the Everyday Mathematics program emphasizes data analysis using real-life, multiple step math problems, while Singapore Math’s approach is more ideological.”

    What! Singapore Math teaches more deep “ideological” understanding in math than Everyday Math? This is K-6 and the goal of math is not to track students into a lower level career path that virtually closes all STEM education doors – IN K-6!


  3. So is Singapore Math good or bad? I am a homeschooling mom. I’d appreciate your suggestions for 8th grade math. Also, it appears that the Education News website is no longer being used. Can I ask why? Is there a newer one somewhere? Thank you.


    • After 6th grade, you need to move to proper math textbooks that lead to the AP Calculus track in high school. If you are still hoping for proper STEM career preparation, you really need to push to achieve proper Algebra I course material in 8th grade that leads to honors geometry as a freshman in high school. This is required to follow the Geometry-Algebra2-PreCalc (trig)-AP Calculus track. If you are headed for engineering, math, physics or even chemistry, you need to get to AP Calculus. Other STEM career paths might be OK for reaching only Pre-Calc, but students have to be prepared to get through at least 2 semesters of calculus in college and perhaps courses like linear algebra. In my college math and CS teaching days, I saw many students who had to change their majors because they could not get through the math requirements. I saw this even with nursing students who couldn’t get through a course in statistics.

      My son’s schools finally got rid of the silly and slow CMP math in middle school and chose the Glencoe math series called simply Pre-Algebra in 7th grade and Algebra I in 8th grade. They were good textbooks. You have to watch out for textbooks that are not simply titled like that. Some contain subtitles like “Tools for a Changing World.” These could be from the same publisher, but if you look at the contents, you will see that they are slower and less rigorous.

      When I was growing up, the top level in high school was called “College Prep”, but now that they think everyone should go to college, that has become the lowest level. In my son’s high school, the only kids not in College Prep are those who are about two years behind. This means that the new (and realistic) College Prep courses are Honors and AP Classes. They are traditionally taught and use old fashioned textbooks. This is where all of the best students go.

      In our town with full inclusion (in K-6) that uses vague and fuzzy rubrics, almost everyone is proficient and above. Then the middle school 7th and 8th grades begin to turn the screws to tell kids they have to buckle down for high school where every traditional grade counts. Unfortunately, K-6 has not prepared them well for the level of mastery and hard work they need. I had to help out my son at home by pushing proper p-sets and mastery. By the time he got to high school, I did not have to help at all. Math is the most difficult to recover from after 6th grade because it’s cumulative and poor or missing skills are hard to diagnose and fix while charging ahead on new material.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, definitely good, though I prefer the older Primary Math, US Edition. I used those with my daughter, and they are available via http://www.singaporemath.com.

    Regarding Education News, it was taken down for reasons unknown even to Matt Tabor who was the editor there and worked with me on many articles I wrote for them. I’m not aware of a newer one, which is a shame.


  5. I guess once the conceptual clarity is gained, whether traditionally or in an advanced way, one can overcome the fear of not knowing a topic in Mathematics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s