Early indications suggest that many U.S. students taught with textbooks imported from Singapore do perform better in math. Some children who once found the subject frustrating say they now like it.
Faced with a worrying decline in math proficiency among U.S. kids, a growing number of educators are seeking inspiration from Asian curricula. American children are falling behind their Asian peers in science and math, a shift that could push still more white-collar jobs offshore as the next generation graduates.
“Our kids just don’t seem as numerate as they should be, and we decided we needed to try whatever we can to fix that,” says David Driscoll, Massachusetts’ education commissioner and a former math teacher himself, who had the idea of using Singapore text books in local schools.
Critics assert that math teaching has been dumbed down in the U.S. over the past two decades. They say that too much emphasis is placed on making the subject accessible and fun and not enough on vital, if repetitive, drills such as multiplication tables. Another big criticism: U.S. math curricula tend to cover plenty of subject areas but not in sufficient depth.
Singapore and other southeast Asian countries take a different tack. Singapore’s curriculum was developed over the past few decades by math experts hired by the Ministry of Education, who continually interviewed math teachers to find out what works and where kids need help. The elementary textbooks cover only one-third of the topics typically found in U.S. textbooks, but the material is taught far more thoroughly. While rote learning plays a part, kids in Singapore also learn to use visual tools to understand abstract concepts.