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In L.A., Singapore math has added value

March 09, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Here's a little math problem:

In 2005, just 45% of the fifth-graders at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood scored at grade level on a standardized state test. In 2006, that figure rose to 76%. What was the difference?

If you answered 31 percentage points, you are correct. You could also express it as a 69% increase.

But there is another, more intriguing answer: The difference between the two years may have been Singapore math.

At the start of the 2005-06 school year, Ramona began using textbooks developed for use in Singapore, a Southeast Asian city-state whose pupils consistently rank No. 1 in international math comparisons. Ramona's math scores soared.

"It's wonderful," said Principal Susan Arcaris. "Seven out of 10 of the students in our school are proficient or better in math, and that's pretty startling when you consider that this is an inner-city, Title 1 school."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Math: An article in Sunday's Section A on the Singapore math curriculum said one of its advocates, Yoram Sagher, is a math professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sagher works for Florida Atlantic University; he was formerly affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Ramona easily qualifies for federal Title 1 funds, which are intended to alleviate the effects of poverty. Nine of every 10 students at the school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. For the most part, these are the children of immigrants, the majority from Central America, some from Armenia. Nearly six in 10 students speak English as a second language.

Yet here they are, outpacing their counterparts in more affluent schools and succeeding in a math curriculum designed for students who are the very stereotype of Asian dominance in math and science.

How did that happen?

It's a question with potentially big implications, because California recently became the first state to include the Singapore series on its list of state-approved elementary math texts. Public schools aren't required to use the books -- there are a number of other, more conventional texts on the state list -- but the state will subsidize the purchase if they do. And being on the list puts an important imprimatur on the books, because California is by far the largest, most influential textbook buyer in the country.

The decision to approve the books could place California ahead of the national curve. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, appointed by President Bush, will issue a report Thursday that is expected to endorse K-8 math reforms that, in many ways, mirror the Singapore curriculum.

The report could also signal a cease-fire in the state's math wars, which raged between traditionalists and reformers throughout the 1990s and shook up math teachers nationwide. Fundamentalists called for a return to basics; reformers demanded a curriculum that would emphasize conceptual understanding.

Mathematicians on both sides of the divide say the Singapore curriculum teaches both. By hammering on the basics, it instills a deep understanding of key concepts, they say.

Kids -- at least the kids at Ramona -- seem to love it.

Ramona, which received a grant to introduce the Singapore curriculum, is one of a sprinkling of schools around the country to do so.

Not all teachers like it, and not all use it. The Singapore books aren't easy for teachers to use without training, and some veterans are more comfortable with the curriculum they have always followed. But you can tell when you walk into a classroom using Singapore math.

"On your mark . . . get set . . . THINK!"

First-grade teacher Arpie Liparian stands in front of her class with a stopwatch. The only sound is of pencils scratching paper as the students race through the daily "sprint," a 60-second drill that is a key part of the Singapore system. The problems at this age are simple: 2+3, 3+4, 8+2. The idea, once commonplace in math classrooms, is to practice them until they become second nature.

Critics call this "drill and kill," but Ramona's math coach, Robin Ramos, calls it "drill and thrill." The children act as though it's a game. Not everyone finishes all 30 problems in 60 seconds, and only one girl gets all the answers right, but the students are bubbling with excitement. And Liparian praises every effort.

"Give yourselves a hand, boys and girls," she says when all the drills have been corrected. "You did a wonderful job."

Reinforcing patterns

What isn't obvious to a casual observer is that this drill is carefully thought out to reinforce patterns of mathematical thinking that carry through the curriculum. "These are 'procedures with connections,' " Ramos said, arranged to convey sometimes subtle points. This thoughtfulness -- some say brilliance -- is the true hallmark of the Singapore books, advocates say.

After 10 years of studying the Singapore curriculum, Yoram Sagher, a math professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he still has "very pleasant surprises and realizations" while reading the books. Sagher, who helped train Ramos and the other teachers at Ramona, said he is constantly amazed by "the gentle, clever ways that the mathematics is brought to the intuition of the students."

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