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Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

Lessons to Learn: U.S. vs. Singapore Math

When a particular country comes out on top for student achievement in a well-known international study, educators are bound to be talking about what that country might be doing right. But singing the praises of Singapore, which ranked first in the world in mathematics achievement in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-2003, can really only begin when harmony is reached about what's being done in schools over there.

That's what an American Institutes for Research study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, aimed to find out. Researchers worked on the assumption that there must be something about Singapore's system of teaching math that the U.S. can learn from. What they discovered was that while the U.S. math program is weaker than Singapore's in most respects, it's stronger in some areas.


The study indicates a correlation between focused frameworks like those used in Singapore and good test performance. Lower-performing students are offered an alternative math framework covering the same topics at a slower pace and with greater repetition.

Singapore's textbooks build deep understanding of mathematical concepts while traditional U.S. textbooks rarely get beyond definitions and formulas.

Elementary school teachers in Singapore are required to demonstrate mathematics skills superior to those of their U.S. counterparts before beginning paid college training to become teachers. They receive 100 hours of professional development each year.

Singapore uses more challenging tests and utilizes a value-added approach that rewards schools for individual student progress over time.


Frameworks give greater emphasis to developing 21st century mathematical skills such as representation, reasoning, making connections and communication compared to Singapore.

Frameworks and textbooks place greater emphasis on applied mathematics, including statistics and probability.

As reactions to the report reach AIR, spokesman Larry McQuillan notes that the differences in textbooks and in assessments seem to be generating some of the greatest interest. "I think that the specificity and the examples in these areas more graphically communicate the differences and the possibilities for doing things differently," he says. For related information, see "User Tips for U.S. Districts" below.

Brighter Days for First Amendment Education?

Students aren't learning it, or aren't learning it well. When quizzed on the First Amendment, 75 percent of high schoolers think flag burning is illegal. Nearly half believe the government can restrict indecent materials on the Internet.

They don't care all that much about these Constitutional rights either. Almost three-quarters of students surveyed say they either don't know how they feel about the First Amendment or that they take it for granted.

The findings of The Future of the First Amendment, a study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's High School Initiative, aren't encouraging. But after hearing from 100,000-plus students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 U.S. high schools, the study's authors have a good idea what districts can do to improve.

Students who have taken classes covering the media or the First Amendment (i.e. civics or courses on the U.S. Constitution) are more likely to understand citizens' rights. For example, 87 percent who have taken these courses believe people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, compared to 68 percent who haven't taken them.

Participation in student-run newspapers is another indication of First Amendment savvy. Yet nearly a quarter of U.S. schools don't offer student media programs. "This is not a golden era for student newspapers. They are on the decline," says David Yalof, one of two University of Connecticut researchers who conducted the study. Of schools without student newspapers, 40 percent have halted them in the last five years--often for lack of resources.

Principals surveyed say district-level administrators are generally supportive of journalism skills teaching. Nearly two-thirds of principals rated American schools as good in teaching First Amendment freedoms. But these administrators may need a little brushing up on the topic themselves. More than three-quarters either mildly or strongly disagreed that high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without prior approval.

Math and Science Reform: K-12 Not an Island

A new Business and Higher Education Forum report argues that the preK-12 community can't go it alone to improve science and math education. A Commitment to America's Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education calls for business and higher education leaders to take action.

THE END GOAL Develop seamless state systems of education that extend from P-12 to higher education and the workplace.

THE MEANS A four-part plan to help business and higher ed leaders understand the complex issues faced by preK-12 educators. It's a single national agenda to be pursued simultaneously over the next five years as the BHEF monitors progress.

Establish state P-16 education councils from the business, legislative and education communities. Each group should define, benchmark and initiate a statewide P-16 plan for students completing a high-quality mathematics and science education.

Address and align standards, curricula, assessments, teacher preparation and accountability practices. Proposed changes in any one of these P-12 system components demands attention to effects on the other four.

Engage business and higher education in more effective P-12 reform roles. Corporate education outreach initiatives must align with the state's vision for P-12 improvement. College policies and programs should place the education of mathematics and science teachers at the center of its mission.

Implement national and state-specific public information programs based on a common set of core messages, promoting the efforts to strengthen math and science education of all students.