Students at the Northwest Washington school get one minute to work on a sheet with 30 basic multiplication and division problems. They’re told to get through as many as they can. After a short break, there’s a new sheet and another 30 problems. Later, they stand and clap, counting by fours to 40. After a strong start, some hesitate as the numbers get higher.
“We need some practice,” Abdussalaam said.
Bruce-Monroe is one of about 2,000 U.S. schools in the past decade that have adopted the Singapore approach to math, which stresses mastery of basic skills and a few essential ideas, such as place value and part-whole relationships.
A close look at the D.C. school points up the challenges involved in transplanting a “math miracle” from Asia. These include high levels of student mobility, instructor turnover and a curriculum that proponents say requires a depth of understanding most U.S. elementary teachers don’t acquire in their math training.
In the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Singapore ranked second in the world in fourth-grade math, just behind Hong Kong. The United States placed 11th. Singapore also has excelled on other international tests.
Even though the Singapore method has won acclaim from researchers, no large urban or suburban school system in the United States has fully embraced it.
Montgomery County and Baltimore have tried the Singapore approach in selected schools. Sidwell Friends uses pieces of it. Bruce-Monroe is the only D.C. public school to integrate it into its academic programs.
Although Bruce-Monroe staff members say the Singapore system has generated enthusiasm among students, those heightened spirits aren’t yet reflected in the data. Standardized test scores are lower than they were before the new curriculum was adopted. On the 2009 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, the first citywide test after the changeover, pass rates remained virtually unchanged, with 49 percent of students achieving proficiency. Last year, the pass rate at the school plunged to 23 percent. That decline was steeper than a citywide drop.
“The scores were very disappointing,” said Nuhad Jamal, Bruce-Monroe’s instructional coach.
D.C. officials regard elementary math as a bright spot in their school reform efforts. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth- and eighth-graders every two years, showed that the D.C. public school system was the only one of 11 urban systems tested that made significant gains in math at both grade levels from 2007 to 2009.
But Jamal said she was troubled by the number of students who seemed to enter fourth grade with a poor grasp of basic number operations. The city’s standard text, “Everyday Mathematics,” places heavy emphasis on games and conceptual understanding — a good fit for kids with strong fundamental skills, Jamal believed, but not for those with weak foundations.