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The Bottom Line Could Singapore Math Be a Fix for U.S. Mathematics Education?

Originally published at Real Clear Education

Over the past couple of decades, Singapore has consistently outranked international competition in mathematics. As recently as 2022, the country achieved the world’s best math results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which are conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For 2022, PISA comprised 37 OECD countries and 44 partner countries. Singapore achieved a mean score of 575, substantially higher than the OECD average of 472.  Meanwhile, the United States dragged in with a sub-average mean score of 465.

Clearly, the most powerful country in the world, trounced easily by this small country in Southeast Asia, is sadly below average in mathematics, which is a critical area of education that drives success in STEM careers. While this downward trend has existed for years, it’s likely to get worse, as we are unfortunately seeing (particularly in progressive states) a push to lower academic standards in the name of “equity.” For example, the California State Board of Education recently adopted a controversial new math framework that encourages teachers to make math culturally relevant to students of color deemed to be in marginalized groups, and limits accelerated learning for high-achieving students.

Thankfully, California’s new math framework is not binding, as mathematical problems have never had any affinity towards people groups, and it’s arguable that kneecapping gifted students helps marginalized groups. Indeed, a new approach is vitally needed in America.  Recognizing that American students simply must do better to compete for the STEM jobs of tomorrow, some forward-thinking schools in the classical education movement are taking on this challenge by adopting Singapore mathematics in their curriculums (from here on noted as “Singapore Math”).

In her 2020 book titled The Secrets to Singapore’s World Class Math Curriculum, Wenxi Lee, a native Singaporean instructed in Singapore Math as a child and now a doctoral student in mathematics education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains why the curriculum produces highly successful students in mathematics. Lee notes that not only does Singapore excel in PISA scores, but also consistently ranks at the top of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) charts, an international assessment of 4th and 8th graders.  She argues that Singapore Math, “when properly understood and applied, can greatly benefit American children.”

Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a public, tuition-free, K-12 classical education charter school located in Orange, California, is a striking example of those benefits. I recently spoke with Ms. Lisa Mote, assistant headmaster of the academy’s lower school, which covers transitional kindergarten (TK) through 5th grade. OCCA, a Hillsdale College member school, has accepted and embraced the challenge of teaching the Singapore Math curriculum. Its students are thriving in mathematics as a result. Ms. Mote contends that when a school adopts high standards, students of all backgrounds rise to the occasion. Instead of lowering standards, providing greater support for struggling students is the solution.

Since its inception in 2020, OCCA’s adoption of Singapore Math has produced results that consistently outperform the state in mathematics. In 2021, OCCA outperformed the state by 47 percentage points in 3rd to 5th grade. In 2022, OCCA outperformed the state by 38 percentage points for 3rd to 6th grade, and in 2023, 27 percentage points for 3rd to 7th grade. The decreasing gaps as the years progressed are due to incoming students new to the Singapore Math curriculum as OCCA added on subsequent grades. Nonetheless, OCCA students have demonstrated consistently outstanding results.

Naturally, one might ask how Singapore Math can produce such stunning results in a short period of time. Lee notes in her book that Singapore Math is not something that can simply be copied and pasted into American education. The Singapore Math curriculum emphasizes conceptual understanding over computational skills, based on the belief that for children to do well in math, they must have both. Mote emphasizes that this harmony of Singapore math aligns closely with the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric emphasized in OCCA’s classical, liberal arts primary education setting, which preceded today’s progressive education approach by two millennia.

Mote notes that marrying the concept of the classical trivium with the procedural approach of Singapore Math has delivered success at OCCA. More broadly, she emphasizes there is a culture at OCCA that drives student success: “[In] classical teaching we use Socratic dialogue. We ask questions to foster inquiry and draw explanations. So, it’s not only about mathematics and how we relate to the world around us, but by asking good questions. What if, why, how do you know? Is there another way to solve this problem? Our students are grappling with these ideas and as a result, they’re thinking deeply.” This is consistent with Lee’s argument that a key indicator in the success of Singapore Math is having a “growth mindset” as an attitude toward mathematical learning.

I asked Mote about the challenges teachers face in teaching Singapore Math since the curriculum is new to them. She noted that it takes about two years for teachers to become comfortable with the curriculum, so they must continue to train to master it.  But thus far, as teachers have learned more about the history and philosophy behind Singapore Math, they have become more confident in the curriculum, which has in turn provided a rewarding experience as they see their students excelling. Clearly, it is as imperative for teachers as much as students that they bring a growth mindset to Singapore Math.  Parental support is also critical to instill this attitude in their students.

Unfortunately, OCCA is the only public school in all of California to teach Singapore Math. Thus, Mote laments that California students who don’t have the opportunity to study at schools such as OCCA are missing out on a method extending beyond mathematics that teaches them to think broadly and in a variety of ways about how to approach and solve problems. The future success of California, and indeed America, depends on adequately preparing the next generation for the challenges of tomorrow. Teaching Singapore Math with a growth mindset approach would be a positive step.

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