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The WWC Takes the Stuffing Out of an Asian Tiger

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In education, one of the hottest imports from Southeast Asia in recent years has been Singapore Math, a collection of textbooks developed by Singapore's Ministry of Education for use in that nation's schools. Pockets of educators and parents all around the United States rave about the books, which are also available for purchase here.

Slimmer and decidedly less flashy than the books that weigh down the backpacks of most U.S. students, the Singapore books provide more in-depth coverage of a smaller number of topics. For a more detailed treatment of what makes such an approach to math instruction so appealing, see this Education Week article from 2005.

The books' popularity also stems from Singapore students' consistent ranking at or near the top of the world on international math tests. After all, if Singapore students do so well year in and year out, the textbooks must be doing something right.

That's why it was a bit of a surprise yesterday when the What Works Clearinghouse posted a ho-hum review of the research on the Singapore Math curricula for middle school. The federal researchers analyzed 12 studies on the program that were conducted between 1983 and 2008 and found none that could pass its tough evidence screens.

The reviewers concluded:

The lack of studies meeting WWC evidence standards means that, at this time, the WWC is unable to draw any conclusions based on research about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Singapore Math.

The clearinghouse reached the same non-conclusion two years ago when it reviewed the research on Singapore Math programs geared to elementary school students.

The new report's timing, though, may have been slightly impolitic. Only a week earlier, the education ministry hosted an event at the embassy of Singapore to showcase its approach to math education for educators and the media.

3 Comments

Hm, it seems like the WWC report is more a critique on the fanfare surrounding Singapore Math rather than Singapore Math itself. People are getting excited for a program that, to date, has never been thoroughly evaluated in a proper research study. It may be an effective program, but until we know for sure through rigorous research, we should tone down the excitement.

Patrick has it right. The report says far more about the quality and quantity of US educational research than it does about either mathematics in Singapore, or Singapore Math. The message coming rather consistently from WWC has been not that nothing works (as is frequently accused) so much as we have very little research that supports our knowing what works.

In the U.S., Singapore Math tends to refer more to the "Primary Mathematics" series than any secondary program. It's not really accurate to attribute the fanfare and excitement surrounding a primary program to a lesser-used secondary program.

The WWC report is a review of New Elementary Mathematics, secondary materials that few U.S. schools use in middle school but which are no longer in use in Singapore.

Other than the AIR Study, there has been little research into the Primary Mathematics series, although one longitudinal study should be released soon based on the program in N. Middlesex schools in MA.

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