Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Singapore Math thoughts from Palo Alto as used at Keys School

I am a math teacher and chair at a K-8 school in Palo Alto, CA, that adopted Singapore Math 4 years ago. We are finding it very successful, especially in teaching children number sense and conceptual understanding.

Having taught several years in Europe, I was alarmed by the rote, algorithmic approach used by US textbooks. I teach middle school, and found that over half of my students were having difficulty transferring all those meaningless, memorized algorithms to the concepts of algebra and higher math.

We knew we wanted a math approach that carefully and conceptually teaches math from the concrete through pictorial to the abstract, and I was very pleased to discover SPM. Here are the major advantages we have found:

1. Strong mental math mastery: math facts are not drilled because they are not *memorized* in SPM, but internalized. Manipulatives are used heavily to train base-10 sense - much more so than in US textbooks. Then there are pages and pages of pictorial representations in the workbooks giving students time to translate their learning into a strong base-10 number sense. Mental math is a fun and challenging component of daily math instruction all the way through middle school. At Keys School, we are
finding that our middle school students now have far greater numeracy skills since we adopted SPM.

2. Depth of curriculum: Each 3- or 4-week long unit has a minimum quantum
of learning, plus additional levels of enrichment. Students have time to
truly understand a concept, and successfully transfer it to the abstract in
their own minds, and therefore do not need re-teaching.

3. Word problem modeling: The visual nature of SPM rectangle models
allows students to tackle word problems with confidence. Even that 1/3 of
any class who struggle with math (and especially word problems) learn to
solve complex problems because they can "see" them.

4. Algebra readiness: Because of the emphasis on understanding of math concepts, rather than memorizing algorithms, students actually transition more easily to algebra with SPM. At Keys we have seen a steady increase in the skills of incoming 7th graders, and a remarkable increase in algebra ability of our 8th graders. Most importantly, the "non-math" students who used to struggle and fail algebra are now succeeding.

The only disadvantage we've discovered is that adopting SPM required training for our lower-school teachers, who needed to discard the algorithms they were taught and teach math from a conceptual, mathematical basis.

Hope this helps,

Kathleen Jalalpour
Keys School and
The Pi Project, Partners in Singapore Math


dan dempsey said...

I have heard "Professional Development is needed" ... usually from the publishers who are going to sell it.

Rarely has professional development centered on increasing the math skill of the teacher. A large impediment in many WA state public schools to successful implementation of Singapore Math might be the low mathematical skill level of the teachers. District and OSPI professional development in Math rarely addresses improving the mathematical knowledge or mathematical competence of the teacher.

It almost appears that OSPI has never planned to provide training that will increase a teacher's knowledge of mathematics.

Anonymous said...

There are two Palo Alto's - East and West(Stanford) - it would be helpful to know which neighborhoods are using Singapore and is the program being used throughout the school. I'm not being skeptical, I think this is great news!

An interesting controversy started there in 1995 over reform math. Gary Tsuruda taught middle school in Palo Alto - he did problems of the week with students. He was a fabulous teacher, but he found himself in an interesting position caught between parents and his career.


This is another article about the controversy. He had a character named Bobo who was a part of the weekly math problem. And students had to help Bobo solve the problem. Unfortunately, Bobo is not a very nice word in Spanish.


dan dempsey said...

About Keys School:
Keys School
• 2890 Middlefield Road
• Palo Alto, CA • 94306

Keys at a Glance

K - 8
CAIS accredited
Established in 1973
Average class size of 18
Student-to-teacher ratio of 7:1
Total enrollment of 176
Students of color: 42%
High academic achievement
Broad, hands-on curriculum

Sudhakar said...


You mentioned "A large impediment in many WA state public schools to successful implementation of Singapore Math might be the low mathematical skill level of the teachers."

I believe this is the root of the problem. It has been repeated by at least two school superintendents, a few ESD members in charge of teacher development, and countless parents. This is a structural issue, and cannot be solved by legislating a good curriculum. And no amount of professional develpment is going to turn a math phobe into a math lover overnight. Singapore can do it because EVERYONE in Singapore takes rigorous math till 10th grade. Saying "I am not good in math" is not an option. So, when a teacher in Singapore gets into teacher training, they are much better equipped to teach the math to elementary school children.

We got into this mess due to decades of neglect and a "cafeteria" high school system, which grants diplomas to those who are not ready for life or college. It is not going to be solved overnight. But we can and must start right now.

I saw Obama's inspiring speech today. He said the right things. Words are easily said, I only hope he can get the rest of the nation, kicking and screeming, to change.

dan dempsey said...

It is clearly time to look at those Professional Development expenditures and begin to focus on improving the mathematical knowledge of teachers.

The Everyday Math professional development in Seattle essentially did nothing to improve the mathematical competence of teachers.

We are in an incredible infrastructure crisis. It takes years to produce engineers and math professionals. There is not just a math teacher shortage, there is a math knowledge shortfall. Many Teachers especially at grade k-5 are unprepared to teach Singapore Math. It seems that : We have a system with no interest in preparing these teachers.

Anonymous said...

Dan, The lack of training to teach Singapore is another myth being perpetuated by publishers and certain foolish college professors.

If you don't believe the Moore method exists, think again. At Western it is a requirement to get into its math program. It was called math 312 and it is a ridiculous, pointless waste of time. College professors think it is a rite of passage. Students think otherwise.

The arbitrariness of proofs even at the college level impedes the progress of the majority of students. Show me one piece of published research that hasn't been faked. NSF recipients are told to only write positive things or they won't get funded. I haven't read anything that proves you or others right, other than what you might read in a newsletter from NCTM.

I disagree. If a parent can homeschool their child with it, then why can't it be used in the classroom. Private schools don't have a problem with it. Are you saying those teachers are more qualified. I don't think so.

Singapore is far easier to teach because the linear format is simpler for students to read and understand. The graphic analyzers help process the learning. CPM uses a similiar format which is actually common in Asian textbooks. The problems were individually selected and tested in classrooms. There methods for evaluating curriculum are more stringent than ours, because their standards are higher.

Think about how ridiculous that opinion sounds. A teacher with 5 - 7 years of college education that can't teach from a simple textbook? US teachers have far more training then teachers in Singapore 'and' less time to plan lessons.

Anonymous said...

Here's another thought. What sort of training do you think Core Plus teachers get? Its preposterous! A week long session that has you turning pages in a book and most of the activities have teachers learning how to use a graphing calculator. The calculator has a difficult interface students have to learn and unless they can take it home and 'practice' with it, they will never learn to use the calculator proficiently. Plus I spent most of my instruction debugging student errors using the calculator. If you want to see stupid, then walk into a Core plus classroom. Nothing can go right. Another problem (unbelievably) are managing batteries, so the calculators can be used for an entire day and then recharged after school. It is a management nightmare. You wish you were teaching geography. Enough ranting for tonight.

Anonymous said...

I'm into building puzzles, speed chess, and sculpture. I really don't give a crap what school does, I'll educate my kids at home. thank you.

Anonymous said...

I use Moore screws to build knotty puzzles.

dan dempsey said...

About Singapore...
the home school parent has a particular advantage in moving with the child.

In a school situation if a teacher is told you will be teaching Singapore Math grade 5 next year that is a completely different story. That teacher has not progressed with the child through Singapore grades 1,2,3,4 .. There is a lot of fairly sophisticated thinking taking place by grade 5 in SM.

I am not saying this can not be done but it would require something other than the nonsense that passes for professional development in math to prepare teachers adequately.

It should be noted that Craig Parsley at Schmitz Park elementary in West Seattle has been teaching SM for a few years. He began this with kids who had NO SM prior to grade 5 and his results were outstanding. Schmitz Park is now in their second year of 100% Singapore Math.

Craig also testified vehemently in opposition to EDM on May 30, 2007. Then those board members just adopted EDM by a 7-0 vote.

Anon makes a good point that Singapore Math can be done successfully in a public school if .... someone really wants to do it.

Anonymous said...

That could also be the difference between Singapore teacher training and EDM teacher training. Teachers actually learn how to teach math with Singapore because IT is harder than using EDM (even with PH worksheets, the usual method of teaching).

Don't make no waves; Don't back no losers.

Why is it US math programs are run like Daley City? Can anyone name the NCTM Prez? Does it matter anymore?

Only a jackass with OSPI tattooed to his forehead would object to throwing partial quotients and the lattice method out of the school curriculum.

Anonymous said...

The new Algebra 2 is not the same as Intermediate Algebra (another bait and swap.) An attempt to raise WASL scores? Not that it seems to matter a great deal anymore.

Somehow h.s. has forgotten trig and logs anyway.

How does one take AP stats and never had trig? Who are these people? Do they think kids learn with sunlight?

Anonymous said...

Using worksheets is not good pedagogy, but I'm all for throwing out textbooks and teaching with pizzazz until the DOE provides a textbook that is as good as Singapore. That will be a cold day in Chicago, Ann Arbor, or Austin.

Racism and greed are like twin brothers.

Anonymous said...

It IS the math content knowledge of elementary school teachers in this country that is the main concern when implementing a rich math program such as Singapore Math. I doubt that many people would disagree with the premise that most elementary teachers in the US consider themselves more interested in language arts, fine arts, and social studies than in mathematics. Yet there are many schools around the country that have been teaching Singapore Math with excellent results. How is this happening? Is it possible that these teachers ARE capable of teaching the program, and teaching it well, after receiving professional development which encourages them to study the math themselves? Most teachers consider themselves lifelong learners. If that is so, they can learn this math and then teach it to their students.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the math teachers at Keys were unable to complete a year's worth of singapore math curriculum in a single academic year as scheduled. Can you confirm or deny this?