Outside Felicity Ross' class at Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore, the hallway buzzes with the chatter and constant motion of several hundred youngsters switching classes.
But inside, about 20 purposeful sixth-graders are already settled into their seats. They are part of a unique experiment in math education. The textbook they use comes from Singapore, the tiny Asian nation that made headlines a few years ago by sentencing a young vandalizer to be lashed with a cane.
Ross' class is part of the Ingenuity Project, sponsored by The Abell Foundation of Baltimore, to strengthen math, science and technology education for selected students in five city schools. The program chose Singapore's curriculum because its students consistently score at the top on international math exams.
And some of Singapore's success appears to be rubbing off on Ingenuity Project students. At Poole, roughly half the students in the program are on free and reduced lunch.
At the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, sixth-graders in the project scored in the 86th percentile on a standardized test. At the end of the year, they scored in the 96th percentile.
Singapore math is rigorous. “The word problems are very challenging,” says Karol Costa, executive director of the project. “So many schools are using reform approaches, but they are not successfully teaching arithmetic in elementary school.”
“A lot of the [non-Ingenuity] students can't even multiply,” Ross says. “That's ridiculous in sixth grade. Gosh, you give them a fraction and they're scared silly. So I think there is a real crisis going on.”
That's why the Ingenuity Project chose to look at Singapore's curriculum. “We said, 'Hey, we can't import their values on education; we can't make the parents all feel the same way that all the parents do in Singapore about education. But let's look at the textbooks. That's one thing we can control,' ” Ross recalls.
There is no time to spare in her classroom. Students quickly reach into their backpacks and pull out the slim paperbacks. “The main difference between Singapore textbooks and traditional American textbooks is that [Singapore texts] go much more in-depth in each subject, as opposed to covering lots and lots of subjects,” Ross says.
Students must learn and truly understand a few select concepts. For instance, sixth-graders routinely study volume. The traditional American textbook will explain that length, times width, times height equals the volume, she says. “Maybe they'll get imaginative — really go crazy — and give you volume and length and width, and they'll ask students to find the height. But really, that's as far as they'll go,” she says.
But the Singapore text will also discuss water displacement, she explains. “If we put cubes into the tank and the water level rises this much, what's going on?” she asks. “And the kids have to really understand.”
Singapore math isn't the only advantage for students in the Ingenuity Project. Ross holds after-school coaching sessions with students. She also sends them homework during the summer, which they must complete and return by mail.
Additionally, when the school made the switch to Singapore math about four years ago, Ingenuity Project teachers received special training. During the first year, as they grappled with the transition, Ross and a cadre of other teachers attended Saturday classes with a consultant.
“I was fairly new at that point, so I was much more malleable and open to new ideas,” she remembers. “There are some teachers who have been teaching 20 years a completely different way, and they are like, 'Why is this method better?' ”
To be sure, there are criticisms of Singapore math. “Every word problem has some man giving some woman money,” Ross says. To compensate for the sexism, she writes her own word problems, in which the women involved might be playing soccer or chess.
On a recent morning, Ross snapped on an overhead projector and a complicated word problem appeared on a screen. A girl with a tiny voice read aloud: “Meihua spent one-third of her money on a book. She spent three-fourths of the remainder on a pen. If the pen cost $6 more than the book, how much money did she spend altogether?
Step by step, students tackled the problem. They drew a box representing all of the girl's money and divided it into thirds. One-third represented the money the girl spent on the book. Then they started working on the calculations.
“When I talk about problem solving, I don't mean the students solve a couple of problems per week,” Ross says. “They work on long, extended problems. This is very grounded in mathematics. They also have to be able to do the basics.”