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Revolutionary math teaching method to make Florida debut here this fall

Photo: Fifth-grade math class at Osceola Magnet School where the Singapore Math method will be taught.

In the 1980s, the country of Singapore introduced a new kind of math teaching that relies on visualization and relates numbers to real life. Within a decade, students in that dynamic Asian city-state went from mediocre to having the best math scores in the world.

Now, island education leader Mary Lou Hammond and Osceola Magnet Elementary School Principal Scott Simpson are working to bring the benefits of “Singapore Math” to Indian River County’s public schools – where lagging math scores cry out for help.

When school reopens in the fall, Osceola Magnet will be the first public school in Florida to fully implement the revolutionary program.

Mary Lou Hammond’s passion for education goes back a long way. When her children were young, she was a major force behind the 1965 founding of Saint Edward’s School; about 10 years ago, she made the case for the island school to institute Singapore Math.

“At St. Edward’s, it's even improved the thinking of the students; improved their SAT scores. The parents are happy with it and the kids love it,” says Hammond. “There's just something about [it] . . . that the kids love. They understand it.”

Hammond has now turned her sights on the public school system, which clearly has room for improvement. According to 2014-15 test results, just 54 percent of county public school students are doing satisfactory in math. A U.S. News and World Report ranking based on the 2013-14 school year showed math proficiency rankings of 41 percent at Sebastian River High School, 47 percent at Vero Beach High School and 73 percent at the Charter High School.

Hammond has been collaborating with Simpson since last summer, helping get the school ready for a new way of learning mathematics. Simpson says he has the full support of School Superintendent Mark Rendell and other top district administrators.

“In the 1980s, the country of Singapore decided to invest in their education in a different way, specifically deciding that mathematics was going to be a way to reeducate and help their citizens succeed economically,” Simpson explains.

“They decided to take a different approach to mathematics and within a decade they went from not being on the radar for ratings to leading the world. And as soon as Singapore came out on top, that’s when the world took notice.”

“In improving the math, it improved the entire country,” says Hammond. “If we improve our math it would improve the gross national product by one percent a year, and that would be huge. I feel awfully sorry for these kids who can't do math; they can't even make change. They can’t get a good job without math. I just feel we need to really help these children. I'll do anything I can to help them learn.”

Hammond says she has been in “in constant contact” with Madge Goldman, president of the Rosenbaum Foundation, who was instrumental in bringing Singapore Math to this country, where it has spread to more than 2,500 schools, most of them private schools like Ed’s. 

“She has agreed to work with Scott in this program,” says Hammond. “We have the best person in the country working with Scott. We will get advice from all the professors that are using or know about the math. And St. Edward’s was helpful; the teachers let him visit their math classes.”

“The history of American mathematics is mostly based upon drill and memorization,” says Simpson, who has taught math at the elementary, middle school and college level before becoming principal at Osceola. “You learn the procedures, you follow the procedures and you get an answer. Oftentimes you don't necessarily know what the answer means or why you did it. Unfortunately students who don’t have strong memorization (skills) either don’t succeed in math or don’t like it.”

“A foundation of Singapore Math is that there are three primary steps – concrete, pictorial and abstract.  The idea being, every mathematics problem that you do should relate to real life; something concrete.

The next step is pictorial or visualization. The students should be able to visualize or see what they're doing and how the numbers are composed or decomposed. It’s a structure for students to see even the most complex of problems; to draw a picture of what it looks like. And the last step is the abstract; simple abstract numbers. The goal is that every student should be able to draw a model of what that problem could be about and then take that picture and turn it into a concrete real-life example. 

“You still want to get the right answer. That’s very important. But at the end of the day, what separates Singapore Math is that a right answer without knowing what it means is useless. You need to be able to get the right answer and also understand what it means conceptually.” 

Historically the United States has produced strong mathematicians who have put men on the moon and created incredible inventions, but Simpson points out most of them were brilliant, high-achieving students who understood conceptualization. 

“Brilliant people figure it out on their own; they see between the numbers. However that has never been explicitly taught to everyone else,” says Simpson. “The goal now is every student – whether they struggle academically, are in the middle of the road, or are high achieving but question the usefulness of mathematics – will understand why they’re doing what they’re doing to get the right answer.”

“Osceola's vision is to be a model for the state in science and math,” says Simpson, who wants to reach children who say ‘I’m bad at math,’ ‘I don’t like math,’ or ‘I was born without the ability to do math.’   

“Our science scores are some of the best in the state, but our math scores don't rank us anywhere in the state. The goal is that through this program we’ll be able to expand horizontally to other elementary schools district-wide. I’d love to see it expand vertically, K to 12. But first we have to show how it works.”  

All Osceola teachers received their initial Singapore Math training in May from Sara Schafer of the Bolles School, a high-achieving private school in Jacksonville. She will return in August to focus on individual grade levels and will then come again in the fall.   

To date, Hammond has been the primary funder of the cost of the text books and teacher training, but expanding the program will require additional funding.  

“It's a very rigorous process for a curriculum to be approved from the state,” says Simpson, adding that the Florida legislature has given school districts very little freedom to decide what schools can do with the money budgeted to them. Despite the fact that Singapore Math aligns with the Florida State Standards, since it’s not part of the current curriculum, schools must seek private funding to institute the program.

“I give so much credit to Scott for taking the initiative,” says Hammond. “He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing Singapore Math into the public schools. It’s so important for these students. This is huge; it’s going to revolutionize public school math.”

“The first year will be difficult, especially with the older grades implementing a new approach,” says Simpson, noting that the system will be introduced at every grade level, kindergarten through fifth grade. “I'm expecting minor improvement the first year but increasing every year down the line.”

“Most schools have about a nine percent improvement the first year, and it jumps up considerably after that,” adds Hammond. “The goal is that when they leave us in fifth grade they're prepared in math. We’re moving heaven and earth right here. I think it will have amazing results; I can't wait.”