Westtown School Adopts Singapore Math: It All Adds Up

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Teachers at Westtown School, a college-preparatory school in West Chester, PA, wanted to make their math program even stronger. Asking why students in Singapore consistently ranked at the top on international math assessments led the Westtown teachers to Singapore Math, a curriculum that emphasizes deep understanding of math concepts and expects all students to be successful. Westtown adopted Singapore Math at the elementary level last year, with preliminary results already showing gains, and the Middle School will introduce the curriculum beginning in September 2011.

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What we really like is that Singapore Math makes even the most abstract aspects of math manageable and it challenges our strongest math students...we’ve been impressed with how well our students are solving real-world problems.

Teachers and administrators at Westtown School, a college preparatory school in West Chester, PA, have – along with other top educators across the country – watched with dismay as a series of international math assessments over the past decade show American students ranking far below their peers in other industrialized nations. For example, on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compared math performance of 15-year-olds from 34 countries, American students were in 25th place. In a 2010 interview with the Associated Press, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called these results “an absolute wake-up call for America.”

Yet on the other end of the educational spectrum, students in Singapore have consistently ranked first or second on the PISA and similar international exams. So when it came time to re-evaluate their own school’s math program, Westtown teachers were intrigued by the Singapore story. Further investigation revealed that Singapore’s young people had begun to show dramatic improvement in math skills when a new national math curriculum was introduced in the 1980s, one that consistently emphasized problem-solving and a deep understanding of concepts.

Westtown adopted Singapore Math for use in its Lower School in September 2010, one of the first schools in the Delaware Valley to do so. Starting September 2011, Singapore Math will also be phased into the Middle School curriculum, beginning with 6th grade. And just as in Singapore, it hasn’t taken Westtown long to see a positive impact.

What’s the secret of Singapore Math? Lessons progress from the very concrete – where students move around the room taking measurements or working with actual money – to pictorial representations of these same activities, and finally, to abstract problem-solving. Young children discover mathematical concepts for themselves, resulting in a solid understanding of the “whys” of math. This aligns well with Westtown’s own educational philosophy of not merely presenting information but also teaching the mind to think.

In Singapore Math, “less is more,” with prioritization of only the most important skills. American math textbooks at the elementary level may teach 50 different topics, while Singapore Math focuses on only 14, allotting enough time to teach them really well with the expectation of mastery by all students. There’s a clear scope and sequence, minimizing the need for extensive drill and repetition since skills that have already been taught are reinforced as new learning is introduced. Finally, emphasizing word problems encourages students to analyze and rely on the meaning of the situation presented, rather than looking for “clue words,” as is often the case in traditional American math instruction.

When Singapore Math was introduced in Westtown’s Lower School last fall, Principal Annette Hearing said, “Our teachers have been working with the Singapore Math materials over the summer, and all of them went to training workshops and visited other schools that already use the curriculum. For this program to be successful, it’s really important for teachers to have a deep understanding of it, too. We’re looking to build the strongest possible mathematical foundation in the elementary grades so our students will be even better prepared for advanced math offerings in Middle and Upper School.”

Preliminary data from standardized testing in the spring of 2011 has already been encouraging: after a year of Singapore Math, 5th graders showed significant gains when compared with their performance the previous year. And even more exciting, according to teacher Bonnie Michael, “There were just so many more ‘aha!’ moments in my class as students became comfortable working with fractions using the Singapore ‘bar model method,’ where they draw the problem and can actually see what’s happening as they solve it.”

Westtown’s Middle School Principal, Nancy van Arkel, adds, “We’re eager to begin building on the momentum from the lower grades when we introduce Singapore Math in September. What we really like is that this program makes even the most abstract aspects of math manageable and challenges our strongest math students. We’ve already been using the Singapore approach to word problems, and we’ve been impressed with how well our students are solving real-world problems.”

Westtown School, founded in 1799 by Quakers, offers day and boarding options for children in grades preK - 12. With approximately 720 students, its diverse student body is made up of students from the Delaware Valley, as well as 20 states and 18 countries.

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