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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Jared Mackey and his daughter, Rylee, play games at Silver Hills Elementary School's math night Feb. 24.

Who says math can't be fun?

During Silver Hills Elementary School's math night, first-graders showed off their new skills — and their parents learned more about the school's Singapore math pilot program.

"She comes home and teaches me how to do it," said Mayra Wallen, of West Valley City, whose daughter, Jimena, is in the program.

Singapore math is a method in which students learn mastery of core concepts then move on to solving problems by applying that knowledge. The curriculum is extremely visual and involves word problems. In southeast Asia's Singapore, students consistently test No. 1 internationally in math.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is sponsoring a bill, SB159, this legislative session that would allow five schools to apply for a grant to launch Singapore math.

The goal is to better prepare students to compete globally in math-related fields, including science and engineering. "We can't delay improvement of our math," he said.

At the request of the State Board of Education, Stephenson reduced the proposed annual cost from $1.7 million to $500,000, which would pay for 5,000 students to take Singapore math. The legislation is awaiting debate in the House.

State education leaders have expressed support for the program while voicing concerns for the cost. "It's a totally different approach to doing mathematics instruction," said Brenda Hales, associate state superintendent of student achievement and school success.

Guess the number

At Silver Hills' math night, kids engaged their parents in several math games, including one called "Missing Addends."

The parents glanced around the room, wondering who would be brave enough to ask, "What the heck is an addend?"

The teacher placed a mystery number of colored plastic squares under a bowl and then put seven squares on top of the bowl. There were 20 squares total. A volunteer student walked on a plastic number strip starting at square seven and counting the numbers to 20, a total of 13 steps.

Parent Nancy Saxton, of Kearns, says she really likes the Singapore math program so far. Her first-grade son, Andrew, is in the pilot program.

"It just seems to make so much sense for young minds. It really brings the concepts together," she said. "It seems to get the concept in their head better than when I was learning in school and we were just writing the numbers out.

"I love it. As a kid, I would have learned a lot better with it."

Doing the math

On the math spectrum, educators call Singapore math a happy medium. It's not as structured as traditional "algorithm math" which involves a lot of memorization and is deemed as too rigid by some teachers.

Yet, Singapore math isn't as fluffy as the controversial "Investigations math" which some educators have labeled as vague and lacking in solid concepts.

Investigation is "fuzzy math," said Oak Norton, a parent in Alpine School District, an accountant and math advocate.

Norton is as big a supporter of Singapore math as he is an opponent of Investigations math. He worked with Stephenson to create SB159.

Singapore math moves slower, with the students spending more time on one concept, learning it completely before they move on to the next step. Traditional math goes through more topics in a school year but doesn't go as in depth on each topic.

Singapore math is based on problem solving. Students talk through what they do and tell stories based on the math problems. One day in teacher Sarah Van Maren's class, the children told a story for each math problem: There are five frogs in a house. Two frogs go outside to play. Three frogs are left behind.

As children talk out the problems, teachers have noticed their vocabulary improves, especially with the English as a Second Language students.

Children are also making real-life connections using manipulatives or objects. First-grade teacher Jean Turner uses buttons, beans and cold cereal, "anything the kids can move," to give students a hands-on experience. Colored discs are part of the curriculum.

Testing 1-2-3

About 2,000 schools nationally teach Singapore math. It is especially popular in charter and private schools, according to Cassandra Turner, a Singapore math consultant based in Colorado. She advises schools and trains teachers on the curriculum.

Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood, Calif., started Singapore math in fall 2005. During that time, 45 percent of fifth-graders were scoring at grade level on standardized state tests. A year later, that number jumped to 76 percent.

Ramona Elementary is a Title 1 school. Six of 10 children are in the English as a Second Language program.

Benchmark Charter School in Phoenix, Ariz., which uses Singapore math, is the top-scoring school in the state. A total of 94 percent of students at Benchmark say math is their favorite subject.

Silver Hills Elementary has been piloting the program for about six months in three first-grade classrooms.

There are no statistical data yet at but the three teachers say their students are testing well. The kids take four pre-and post-tests each school year.

"They're showing awesome growth. They know their strategies and skills," Van Maren said.

"They know their stuff," Turner said.

Price check

Singapore math books cost from $25 to $45, depending on the grade level, and are paired with two workbooks at $8 each per year.

The average elementary math text book in Granite School District is around $60 with two workbooks at $9 a piece for a total of $78.

The expense for Singapore math comes in teacher training.

In Singapore, teachers are required to put in 100 hours each year.

That isn't being recommended in the United States, but the program is still heavy on professional development.

"It takes a lot of professional training in order to do it right. The program won't be successful without it," said Shari Goodman, Granite District math specialist. Granite district is paying for its pilot program.

Parents can also buy the books on their own to supplement their children's learning.

David Wright, math professor at Brigham Young University who helped craft Stephenson's bill, said he bought the books for his grandchildren because "they are not getting enough math" in their schools.

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