DC Schools Look to Singapore for Math Education

When it comes to learning, it always helps to get taught by the best. That was surely the thinking behind the adoption of the Singapore method of mathematics in the Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in Washington, DC. With Singapore ranking behind only Hong Kong in fourth-grade math, according to an international math and science study, teachers and administrators alike were hopeful about introducing the method. But has the program fared well? Schools offering Mathematics degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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'A Math Miracle'

The Singapore method emphasizes the use of bar diagrams and pictures to help children better understand basic and essential math concepts. The method delves deeper into a few concepts and strives to develop mastery of a specific area before moving on to another. Some refer to the Asian system as a 'math miracle'.

Bruce-Monroe is the only public school in DC that has fully integrated the Singapore system (some schools in Baltimore and Montgomery County have tried it). The school's instructional coach, Nuhad Jamal, told The Washington Post early in June that she had been 'blown away' when she saw a presentation of the method at an Atlanta conference in 2007. She realized that the text being used at the time just wasn't working, most notably for students who hadn't yet developed fundamental math skills.

By the 2008-09 school year, Jamal, along with Principal Marta Palacios and help from a foundation grant, managed to get Bruce-Monroe to switch to the Singapore method. It was met largely with enthusiasm by the student body. But despite the acceptance of the system and its proven effectiveness, standardized math scores in the school have fallen dramatically since the program's inception. Why? In the case of Bruce-Monroe, there might be a few reasons.

A Bumpy Ride to Better Math

Just as the new program was adopted, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee decided to close Bruce-Monroe, merging it with a nearby elementary school. The move was not an easy one, certainly not made any easier while a new math program was being introduced.

But the school's closing and subsequent realignment were not the only roadblocks hindering the curriculum change. First, at the time there were no Spanish versions of the Singapore textbooks (60 percent of the students at the school are Hispanic); a lack of teacher aids to the Singapore textbooks made learning the system, already difficult for American teachers, even harder; and, in a school where slightly more than 75% of teachers leave in less than five years, it was increasingly difficult to retain teachers who had completed the training and finally grasped the new system.

What's more, in this particular school district there is typically a flux in the student population. Newer students coming in later in the school year tended to have a more difficult time adapting to the progressive Singapore system.

None of this has dampened the enthusiasm or commitment to the use of the Singapore method, at least for Jamal. School officials in DC, however, want to review the test score and pass rate numbers before making a decision to continue using the system.

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