WACS embraces Singapore math method to boost scores
Winona Daily News
Math in the youngest grades at St. Stanislaus School looks different this year.
More time is spent on fewer units. The textbooks have been replaced with thinner ones chock full of bright pictures. And students are raising their hands like never before.
Winona Area Catholic Schools is part of a growing number of districts and school systems across the country hoping to emulate the mathematical success of Singapore, where students have ranked at or near the top on international math exams since the 1990s, by implementing the system developed in the small Asian island country.
Kindergartners and first-graders at St. Stan's started using the foreign framework last fall. Next year, the curriculum will be added to second-grade classes, with an additional grade added every future year.
Principal Pat Bowlin said the traditional methods of teaching math in the United States, where math scores continually rank among the lowest of all industrialized nations, are not getting the job done. He is hopeful Singapore math will engage more students in the subject and boost their performance.
"We want to make math fun again," he said. "We're trying to do it differently."
A picture-based approach
Singapore math focuses on promoting a deep understanding of numbers and math concepts, which means fewer topics are covered but in greater depth than traditional U.S. programs. Students master the material through a concrete, pictorial approach.
The new textbooks used by first-graders at St. Stan's are fewer than 100 pages. Rather than having columns upon columns of addition and subtraction problems, the pages rarely contain more than two or three problems and almost all are accompanied by simple, colorful sketches of bumblebees, apples and other pictures meant to help students grasp the content.
Anywhere from six to 16 pages are dedicated to a single unit. Students can spend a whole week mastering the numbers one through 10.
An entire page in chapter seven, which Jani Giaquinto's first-graders started last week, displays 12 bright squares, triangles, rectangles and circles with six words: Group these shapes in different ways.
When Giaquinto first skimmed the textbooks, she said she was skeptical teachers could make the lessons last for a whole class period and still keep students interested.
"You look at the lessons and wonder if it will last 45 minutes," she said, "but it does."
A lesson with no distractions
Tuesday, Giaquinto handed groups of students sitting in a semi-circle on the classroom floor baggies filled with small plastic shapes. She asked the students to describe what they saw and felt.
"This shape has three sides, and it's smooth, and it looks like an ice-cream cone when you flip it," Anna Piechowski said, turning the tip of the triangle toward the floor.
Later, the class looked more closely at rectangles and squares. They discussed the differences between the shapes for several minutes, then Giaquinto asked, "The rectangle has two?"
"Long sides," Daymon Moore answered.
"Short sides," he said.
"The square has?"
"All the same sides," he finished.
In the surprisingly quiet classroom, it's easy to forget the 14 children are only in first grade. No one wanders to the bathroom. There are no distracting side conversations about recess.
"There were times when I taught from the other math programs where I'd have to continually remind certain children in the class, keep your eyes on the work, stay on task," Giaquinto said. "I don't do that now. I don't have to say keep your eyes where they're supposed to be and pay attention. I don't have to do any of that, because they are."
That even goes for students who struggle with math, Giaquinto said.
"I have one little boy who, in the beginning of the year, would just cringe like, ‘Oh, I don't get this,' and now I bet you wouldn't know which one that was," she said. "He says the answers right along with everybody else.
"For some reason they just develop such a self-confidence with this."
Teaching to ability, not grade level
In Singapore, students are divided into classes based on their mathematical abilities. All students cover the same topics, but instructors with students in the lower-ability groups use more repetition and teach at a slower pace.
An emphasis is placed on evaluating the progress of individual students, unlike in the U.S., where federal No Child Left Behind standards assess the progress of schools, not individuals.
WACS has embraced the practice of grouping students by ability in all grades at St. Stan's. Students in each grade were divided into three sections at the beginning of the year based on math performance.
The groups allow instructors to teach to each group's level rather than to the middle of a class, which might include math whizzes, struggling students and everyone in between, Bowlin said.
St. Stan's sixth-graders have already finished the year's curriculum and have started seventh-grade algebra, Bowlin said. Five fourth-graders are taking fifth-grade math now, too, he said.
Too often kids are held back, Bowlin said, because teachers in the U.S. are told they must teach to a certain grade, rather than a student's ability.
New approach cheaper, too, but not without challenges
Implementing the new math hasn't been seamless.
Teachers have faced the highest hurdles, said both Bowlin and Gregg Hansel, a principal with Stevens Point Catholic Schools in Wisconsin, which started using Singapore math four years ago and has helped train WACS teachers.
In particular, teachers have had to re-learn how to explain basic mathematical concepts.
"I think I'm learning with (the students)," Giaquinto said. "Or maybe I'm one step ahead of them."
The longtime St. Stan's instructor learned the new framework last summer at a conference in Stevens Point, but said she often still refers to her teachers' manual and gets advice by emailing Stevens Point instructors.
Luckily, Hansel and Bowlin said, the cost of implementing the math has not been a burden.
The paperback books used by first-graders at St. Stan's are priced on the distributor's website at $10.80. And teachers have found ways around spending large amounts on new visuals by creating their own with cheaper, locally purchased materials.
If anything, Bowlin said, Singapore math has reduced the amount of money the school spends on math materials.
A successful start
So far, the work of bringing Singapore math to WACS and Stevens Point has been worth it, Bowlin and Hansel said.
Last year, Stevens Point third-graders outscored its fourth-graders, who were not learning Singapore math, Hansel said.
"If you shoot for the top, even the struggling kids are going to get better," Hansel said.
With a grasp now on how to teach the Singapore concepts, Giaquinto said she is more excited than ever about teaching math.
"I'm feeling really good about what I'm creating for their learning and I'm feeling even better when I see them responding and learning and not being afraid to raise their hands and say something, even if it's not quite right," she said. "They are able to go back and figure it out."