New math technique to be used in Fayette

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 6, 2009 

Students at selected Fayette County elementary schools will find something different waiting for them when classes resume next month: new math textbooks, by way of Singapore.

The Fayette County Public Schools will be one of the first school districts in Kentucky to try out the new textbook, Math in Focus: The Singapore Approach, which is based on math-teaching techniques that have helped Singapore's students rack up some of the world's highest mathematics scores in recent years.

The Singapore-based textbook covers fewer math topics than texts previously in use here, but it strives to give students a greater depth of understanding, educators say. That's in line with guidelines for new Kentucky math standards, which the state legislature mandated earlier this year.

"It's really more than a textbook. It's a whole program and approach to math," said Natalee Feese, the Fayette schools' elementary math content specialist. "It's a very rigorous program that focuses on helping kids understand math conceptually first, rather than rushing them into a lot of rules."

Nine Fayette elementary schools will exclusively use the new textbooks — and accompanying teaching techniques developed in Singapore — in grades K-12 starting with the new school year. Seven other schools will use parts of the program, officials said.

Teachers in participating schools will get extensive training in Singapore instruction techniques starting this month, and continuing throughout the 2009-2010 school year.

Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman said he decided to try the new textbooks after learning more about them this spring. The plan is aimed at closing student achievement gaps, he said.

Other elementary schools could switch to the textbooks if results are good.

The Fayette schools will spend about $325,000 on the new textbooks and teacher training in 2009-2010, according to Jack Hayes, the district's director of student achievement support. The money mainly will come from federal stimulus dollars funneled through the Title 1 program, he said.

Participating teachers will receive almost 100 hours of training in Singapore methods by the end of next school year, Hayes said.

Why all the interest in Singapore?

Singapore has only about 4.8 million people. But its students repeatedly have out scored their counterparts from the United States, and many other nations, on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a quadrennial assessment of student achievement around the globe.

Singapore's eighth-graders were the top math scorers in the 2003 international assessment; its fourth-graders ranked third in 2007, while U.S. fourth graders were ninth.

Education researchers cite several reasons for Singapore's success, including that it has uniform math standards. The U.S. has no uniform national standard.

"Singapore math" now is very much in vogue among U.S. educators as a result of the nation's high scores. Depictions of how Singapore math works can be found all over the Internet, and a number of U.S. textbooks based on Singapore math are now on the market.

The book Fayette County will be using is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is adapted from a math text that 80 percent of students in Singapore use. Math in Singapore is taught in English. The only real difference in the books is that Fayette County's texts will use terms more familiar to American youngsters, such as gasoline instead of petrol, the publisher said.

(The Marshall County Public Schools, in western Kentucky, will try out a Singapore-based elementary math textbook by another publisher this year.)

Fayette County officials extensively studied the textbooks and teaching procedures before deciding to try them. For example, Feese, Fayette's math-content specialist, recently met with Dr. Fong Ho Kheong, the educator who wrote Singapore's math program.

Feese said the nine Fayette elementary schools that will use the new textbooks are Breckinridge, Deep Springs, Garden Springs, Harrison, Lane Allen, Liberty, Mill Creek, Russell Cave and Yates.

She said the seven schools that will use parts of the Singapore program in conjunction with their regular math teaching are Cardinal Valley, Cassidy, Julius Marks, Meadowthorpe, Northern, Southern and Mary Todd.

Altogether, about 4,300 Fayette elementary students will be involved, officials said.

Feese predicted that students, teachers and parents will find the new approach to math both challenging and exciting.

The new books use word problems extensively, she said. And unlike typical American textbooks, they require students to draw pictures or "bar models," showing their solutions to problems. Teaching typically flows from the concrete to the abstract, Feese said, a reverse of more traditional methods.

"The modeling is critical," she said. "Every problem in the book, they have to draw a picture to represent their solution.

"American students have been taught to approach a word problem by trying to directly convert it to an equation. In Singapore, they want the student to picture the problem, instead of going directly to a formula. They focus on the 'what' of math. That's going to be the big difference."

The new approach won't necessarily be easy.

Abby Johnson, elementary instruction supervisor with the Marshall County schools, said that when teachers there first saw a demonstration of a Singapore math book problem, many thought it was a question intended for upper-level students. It was a first-grade problem, she said.

Feese says she thinks parents will like the books' emphasis on the concepts of mathematics.

"The books really try to develop depth of learning in math," she said. "Once they see it, I think a lot of parents will say, 'I wish I'd been taught this way.'"

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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