Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

I feel for the teachers and administrators who must tolerate hyper-competitive parents in the hyper-competitive Bay Area. Having lived here for more than 10 years, I have had my fair share of debates over curriculum, private vs. public school and the finer points of having my preschooler learn Spanish vs. Mandarin. Heck, I even helped start a school so that my children would experience the curriculum as I and other parents wanted it.

Now I find myself entrenched in this math war. A friend and parent at our school recently expressed reservations to me over our math curriculum, Everyday Math. It is a math curriculum started by the University of Chicago that teaches concepts in a hands-on way so that children not only gain the skills that they need but also know how to apply them in real life. Ari, for example, learns decimals and percentages by actually counting money in the classroom. (The kids collected money on Halloween night as part of a fundraiser for UNICEF.) This curriculum is used by many public schools, including in our own district.

On the other hand, there is controversy around it as parents in nearby Palo Alto, California yanked their kids from the public schools when the district adopted the Everyday Mathematics textbook. A mathematics professor from Stanford University had this to say about it:

In summary, the authors of Everyday Math feel that it is worthwhile to trade computational fluency and speed for having algorithms in which the underlying properties stand out in the clearest possible way. I do not regard this as a necessary or desirable tradeoff. The connections of the theory with the algorithms are important to demonstrate, but need to be done only when the algorithms are introduced. One does not need to saddle students with less effective methods in order to remind them of this connection every time they perform a calculation.

When I asked my friend what he wanted taught instead, he said “Singapore Math.” I did notice that many top private schools, like Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., and in our area, do teach Singapore Math. I looked it up on Wikipedia:

In the United States, Singapore Math is a teaching method based on the primary textbooks and syllabus from the national curriculum of Singapore. These textbooks have a consistent and strong emphasis on problem solving and model drawing, with a focus on in-depth understanding of the essential math skills recommended in the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics),[1][2] the National Mathematics Advisory Panel,[3] and the proposed Common Core State Standards.[4]

Explanations of math concepts are exceptionally clear and simple (often just a few words in a cartoon balloon), so that students (Singapore is a cosmopolitan nation) can read it easily. [5] The method has become more popular since the release of scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study[6] in 2003 showed Singapore at the top of the world in 4th and 8th grade mathematics. This was the third study by the NCES, and the 2007 TIMSS was released in December 2008.

When you read about how Asian children abroad are kicking our U.S. assess in math, it is hard not to question whether you are doing the best that you can to prepare your children for the jobs of the future. Considering that I am so math-illiterate that I didn’t even understand much of the discussion around this controversy, I took a deep breath and talked about it with my husband.


We read many articles together. Rest assured, Everyday Math has been tested and approved by certified mathematicians. The University of Chicago is no joke. The difference between Everyday Math and Singapore Math appears to be its implementation, and quite frankly, my husband and I hated math when we were growing up. The fact that it is Ari’s favorite subject tells us that the school is doing something right. And if we have this correct, we do think that calculators should be used, including on the SAT and that kids should use computers in education, in general. These tools were created for a reason.

Also, call it hippy-dippy, but I think there are a lot of unconventional ways to teach math, which makes me wonder if it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the actual math curriculum at Ari’s school: music, learning languages and critical thinking in general.

Finally, I am not convinced that teaching Singapore Math across all U.S. classrooms will automatically convert our children into mathematical prodigies. There are many differences between Singapore and the United States in that we do not support teachers as they do in Singapore, a universal healthcare system that takes up only 3% of the country’s GDP as well as a larger safety net for families. And this isn’t even touching on the cultural differences, in which Asian children are expected to be obedient and American children encouraged to question and even rebel.

The bottom line: I am not willing to take up a picket sign over this. What say you? Do you know what math curriculum is taught in your children’s schools?

63 thoughts on “Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

  1. Our school

    converted from Houghton Mifflin to Everyday Math 3 years ago.  When the change was announced (a fait accompli) I looked into it and nothing I read reassured me.  But I figured I should give it a chance, and now that we’ve been through grades 1-5 with it I can sincerely report that I despise it.  I believe the in-class exercises are better than what we see at home, and some of them sound like fun.  I can also see how the recursive method would be easier to manage for a teacher struggling with 25 different styles and abilities at once.  

    But I still think the curriculum is too dumbed down.  Especially the homework, which is deliberately designed to be asinine busywork because it is intended to promote self esteem and “family connection” along with reinforcing the lesson.  I’m not going to pick up a picket sign because I know full well there is not a thing I can do about it – changing the curriculum outside the review cycle is not an option.  Fortunately we are a math oriented household and can teach math ourselves, so our boys will do fine.  

    Not that I have an opinion or anything.

    • I don’t like it either.

      Not sure what they were thinking. I guess that it is “U. of Chicago developed on educational theory” therefore must be great, right?

      I was talking to a friend in the education dept at UCD though and she said a lot of these findings are based on small studies (such as the looping concept finding) which can’t necessarily be extrapolated on a large scale to an entire curriculum, but they do anyway and then it doesn’t necessarily end up having the impact that they thought it would.

    • Our school uses it

      But we have traditional flashcards and math facts drills to supplement the ED Math curriculum.  That’s probably the best of both worlds.  I am a big believer in hands on for getting concepts across in the early grades but you do have to know your facts.  I see it as similar to blending phonics and whole word instruction in reading.

    • Yup.

      Very thankful that Oz doesn’t use it. I’m sure it’s great for kids that are in the lower percentiles for maths. Fantastic that they’l learn basic skills. But it’s seriously dumbed down…I was horrified when I was helping my nephew with his math in October.

      Singapore Math gets used a lot here, and I can sincerely report that it is not the be all and end all either. It may work for a subsection of the population (the ones that love word problems and logic puzzles), but again, not all of them.

      I’m with you…thank goodness we’re a mathy  family and can teach the kids proper math at home.

      • hmmm

        I wonder what our school uses. The girl does basic addition and subtraction, multiplication and division and logic and such at a good level, so I haven’t really spent much time worrying about it.

        • Ha!

          She’s going to have a looong primary school road. Because the Australian curriculum is a spiraling one. Translation: same damn thing every year. Drives my kids totally mental.

            • Eh.

              It’s a National Curriculum. It is what it is. No worming out of it. The upside is that they can use whatever methods they want to teach it (or a conglomeration of lots of them, which is my preference). The down side is that you learn the 2 and 4 times tables in year one, the 3 and 6 times tables in year two, etc.  I mean really…once you’ve got one times table, you’ve got them all. But every year we come back again…. And it’s the same for place value (this year we do ten thousands!), addition (with three digits now!), subtraction, fractions, etc. Around and around we go. I have no doubt that it works for some kids. Just not mine.

              • wonder how they’ll handle it

                since we’re in multi-age classrooms, I am guessing that there’s a lot of leeway around this. I mean, if a year one does 2 and 4 times tables, our school doesn’t seem like the ones to say “no, you can’t go sit with the year twos doing 3 and 6.” So I’m hoping that the multi-age structure can handle this.

                But as you say, it’s the national curriculum. We’ll work around it.

                • Well…

                  If your school is anything like mine (and it is)… Some kids will learn all the times tables in year one. Just because that’s what kids do. And by year three, the class will be divided along the lines of kids that know them and kids that don’t. And that’s what gets called advanced maths. It doesn’t meant that you’re good at algorithms or mental maths…it means that you got the whole curriculum in one year. :) But they do extension because everyone knows that it’s stupid. Though if you get a teacher that really doesn’t get maths, she’ll say something really silly like “But they’re doing two column multiplication now! That’s much harder! I’ll give the extension kids three columns!”. sigh….

                  • Know what gives me the giggles?

                    The beginning of the year “this is what we’re going to do” sheet. Clearly someone has written it to sell the curriculum to parents. Because your year one will come home with a sheet that says “we’re doing algebra and fractions!!!” yay!! Extension maths!! Right? No… algebra means that they’ll do one digit addition with one of the numbers missing (1 plus what equals 3?), and fractions means the concepts of whole and half. wheeeee……

      • you are fortunate to be well out of it

        By focusing on the bottom percentiles and pushing a few more of the weakest students across the minimum threshold, EM probably raises the test scores that trigger federal sanctions.  So the program might be a logical choice for schools being penalized under No Child Moves Ahead/Race to the Bottom.  I don’t think this program is necessarily a good thing for the teachers, though.  We were “informed” that this is an excellent program that all children can excel at, but that it is challenging to teach properly.  The inference I took away is that if your child doesn’t do well there must be something wrong with the teacher, because we’ve established that the program is good.  Like we need more of that.

        Of course we were also told that this program won’t succeed if the parents don’t buy into it.  I’m afraid that train has left the station.  (Heading east toward Chicago at 73 mph; calculate the time at which the train will derail.  Show all work.)

        • Ha.

          And why on earth would you choose a curriculum that is “challenging to teach” in the first place? I mean, it’s fine to ask teachers to extend themselves and all…but from my experience, most primary school teachers don’t have a great relationship with math themselves. Not that they don’t do a good job…just that they have their own childhood hatred of it, or were told that they weren’t good at it, or they think it’s a boring subject to teach. Primary school teachers that love math and can think of interesting and creative ways to teach it are pretty rare. So let’s take someone who really doesn’t like the subject and make it challenging. And then blame them if they fail. Great idea.

          • actually

            I don’t think they said it was challenging to teach, just challenging to learn to teach.  The teachers had to get extra training in the method.  

    • I also hate everyday math

      and it’s also been a large factor in our decision to pull William from our public school and place him in a charter in another town for next year.

      William went from being a kid who loved school and loved learning, wanted harder work to just hating school this year.  When we ask him what he hates about it, it comes back all the time to being boring and doing the same thing over and over, especially in math.  EM has not challenged him and now it seems to be actually discourging him.

      So we searched around and a there is a STEM charter opening in the town where I work.  We’re gonna give it a try for 4th grade.  The fact that he is excited about it and is not one bit fussed about leaving his friends behind tells me it’s the right call.

        • Recent email with teacher

          Have been talking about this with the teacher, since William now says he hates school.  She told us that because of the looping, the units often start with things that they learned in 1st and 2nd grade…so basically they do 2 years of review before anything new.  I can see how that would be good for kids who struggle in math (it was great for Abbey) but how do they justify it for everyone else?

  2. Sadlier

    Our school (Catholic) uses Sadlier-Oxford, which is a company that provides books to Catholic schools and parishes. I like the math program, the language arts seems very good too. Ironically, the one part of it that I don’t like is at all their Religion textbook, which is an awful mess of a book.

    Our public school district used Everyday Math but with major classroom revisions. I heard there was a Math War when they brought it in, but I wasn’t here for that. I have vague memories of not liking it when we were in that school, we had some silly worksheets come home, but it’s all foggy in my brain now.

    Now the public schools in our district are converting over to Singapore Math.

  3. I can go either way with it

    because it’s so NOT great for Harry (the recursive nature makes him batsh*t crazy) but it works for Molly.  I think one of the things it does very well is break the math phobia cycle.  So many adults look at the symbols of math (+-= x, etc) and have a visceral “I hate math” response- and they pass it along to their kids, even when they intentionally try not to.  The EM way to doing it is so different that, IME, there’s a limited amount of math phobia to be passed along.

    I also like to point out that I did traditional math instructional very well- all A’s, got a 29 on the math portion of the ACT and struggle to figure cost-per-unit on the fly.  I can calculate like the dickens, but application?  Knowing which operation to use when?  Total rubbish.  I know a lot of folks like me.  Functional illiterates numerically.  Maybe this (understanding the underlying algorithms)  is a better way?

    • It might make a good remedial program.

      It addresses one priority (breaking math phobia) at the expense of another competing priority (actually teaching math).  So I can see how it could be used in a remedial program.  I’ve also told it works well in GATE because the teacher has the option to skip or blow past the lower levels and work the same material at a more advanced level.  But in a mixed classroom, not so much as far as I can see.

      When I went to the presentation trying to sell the program to parents it was all about making math FUN! and less scary and how happy!! we’ll all be once our children are no longer in tears.  No word on how it might work for those of us whose children were not yet in tears.  It actually has provoked tears from DS2 on many occasions, because, yeah, batshit crazy pretty much sums up the response of a bright kid to insulting, brain-dead, worthless busywork.  DS1 doesn’t mind it, though; the homework at least has the virtue of not taking any real time or thought and he loves to check the box and move on.

      • This is

        exactly what happened to my kid

        It actually has provoked tears from DS2 on many occasions, because, yeah, batshit crazy pretty much sums up the response of a bright kid to insulting, brain-dead, worthless busywork

        when her math teacher introduced the Khan Academy and started using it to teach rather than as a resource.

        I don’t mind teachers trying new things in the classroom, but when it’s done in a one-size-fits-all manner, that bothers me.

    • Ug

      When they brought up in Gus’s eval meeting that the discrepancy in his skills was concerning, I offered up the anecdote that I got a 13 on the math portion of my ACT and a 30 on the verbal. Extremes run in our family!

      • It sounds like it might

        but the real problem is the Bandwagon mentality that causes boards to buy these systems.   A high quality math programme includes pieces of every system – hands on, real life, pictures, computation skills, investigating, getting dirty, mastering facts etc.    

        Everyday Math may be the perfect system for some kids – Singapore Math may be the perfect system for some kids – Pearson etc, etc, etc.  

          • I’m not familiar with it at all

            so its suckage is outside of my scope at this time.   Let’s “parking lot” that idea and look into it at the end of class, okay?  

            It’s a sad thing that the people who make the decisions about curriculum are so easily swayed by these systems – it’s like you can put something shiney in front of them and they buy it and force it on everyone.   Parts of it may be quite valuable but it won’t work for every kid and a classroom needs to be flexible.  

            • I went to a conference last year-

              the National Conference on Student Assessment.  The money poured into swag by the textbook people was terrifying.  Pearson sponsored a top-shelf open bar bar-b-q with a live band that went 4 hours.  Most of the folks in the room had a drink in both hands the whole time.  Apparently there’s a reception like that every single night, sponsored by a different textbook company.

              And my kids’ school can’t afford field trips unless we sell wrapping paper and Christmas wreaths.

              • But

                But that’s not the company’s fault.

                It’s up to the powers-that-be who make these decisions (ultimately superintendents and BOEs) not to accept swag or attend over-the-top parties like that or accept who-knows-what-else.

                I was on a board once and we wouldn’t even accept a free pen from a vendor who was trying to do business with us, because the previous board had accepted, well, a lot of pens.

                • In California, you would have to declare a party

                  and any swag, on your annual conflict of interest forms if you’re a school board member, a superintendent, or a business manager. It’s enough of a PITA that we’re generally advised to accept nothing.

                  Reading other people’s forms can be pretty amusing. “1 crate oranges, value $10″ etc.

                  • Yep.

                    DH has to fill out those forms every year. A friend who is a business type got given a box seat for a ball game and invited all of us and other friends, and DH, after consulting their person who advises about this kind of thing, couldn’t come even though they do no work together (we are friends because of our kids, not through work). It was a bummer; he loves baseball. I went with the kids and had fun anyway.

                • No, it’s not.

                  It’s the states and the boards who except let the perks sway them and then spend tax dollars on those programs instead of leaving it in the field trip budgets.  But it still pisses me off.

                  • I can’t absolve the companies of responsibility

                    I know market forces counter good governance in so many ways, but that’s really our kids’ money they’re spending, and we pay for the parties in every book we buy whether the party swayed anyone’s opinion or not.

        • Yes

          Also, and it may just be where I am, I rarely see any teacher teach anything straight from the text for anything.  Everybody supplements with all kinds of stuff.  Our district does use Everyday Math but I’ve seen supplements from all over the place as well as teacher created materials.

  4. Our school is using a houghton-mifflin

    curriculum, and I mostly like it.

    There’s been a very definite change in how we teach math, introducing more algebra earlier, and creating some algebra placeholders, like not always having “the answer” on the right and the like. This may lead to some of the confusion for parents.

    I agree that busywork is a trial to some. A good teacher needs to figure out a way to replace that busywork that is solidifying key concepts for some kids with an alternate activity to kids who have that cold.

    I think the Asia fad has to be taken with a grain of salt. Some of their techniques are great, but in some cases you see great scores but not the translation of those scores into great mathematicians.

    http://v.cx/

    I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

    Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

    We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

    They hadn’t any idea.

    I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint:

    “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.“

    Nobody said anything.

    Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?“

    “Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.“

    “And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?“

    “The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.“

    Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

    I said, “Well?“

    Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

    I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.“

    “Ooh, it’s polarized!“ they said.

    After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,“ they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light“ is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?“ I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,“ nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water“!

    • I recognized this excerpt immediately

      It’s from one of my favorite chapters of a favorite book:  Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feinman.  He was truly a scientist’s scientist.  And the section on education in Brazil was disturbing and made a huge impression on me when I first read it, probably 25 years ago now.  He basically ended up telling faculty and government officials that their very best students were completely uneducable and it was pointless to even try.  

      I think about this book a lot these days.  I often wonder if this is the direction we are heading here in the US.  Back in the 80s when I was starting out it was broadly accepted that we had a spark that made us a mecca for the best and brightest scientists from Europe and China.  They could always run rings around us as far as mastery of the content was concerned, but in the lab we Americans excelled despite not actually knowing as much.  We don’t have that edge any more.

    • I liked Houghton Mifflin

      Though I didn’t realize how much I liked it until they switched us to Everyday Math.  Sometimes you don’t really know how good you’ve got it until after it’s gone.

  5. Went to a Montessori Math presentation last week

    Only because I had to for PTO, but it ended up being very interesting, and now I know what DS is talking about when he discusses the crazy ass materials they use. It’s very visual and hands-on, both of which appeal to my son, and he’s doing long division and multi-digit multiplication in the third grade, so it seems to be working. He starts on the materials, figures out the process, then gradually transitions off the materials. I help him with math facts at night. At the regular public school, kids had to master math facts at a certain speed before they allowed them to move onto other topics. He’d still be trying to get 30 addition facts in 3 minutes if he were there. He’s bright but he ain’t fast and tests stress him out. I can see where it wouldn’t be for everyone but it seems to give them a foundation in theory as opposed to churning things out by memorization, which is how I learned.

    • I love Montessori

      math. My daughter was doing some algebra in 4th grade and geometry in 5th. That’s not what they called it, but that’s what she was doing–making beautiful drawings and diagrams and measurements.

    • Speed drills

      I hate those with a passion on behalf of my doesn’t like to be rushed for anything son.  That is the best way to make the kid shut down but thanks to the standardized test, it’s now something they work at.  Luckily they don’t do it to the exclusion of everything else but I hate it with a passion that any time is spent on it.

      • Me too.

        Nothing will make my daughter shut down faster than a stop watch. In fact, there’s a maths program that we’re supposed to work on at home on the computer that has a clock in the corner. We have to cover the clock with a post it note or she freezes and won’t do one single problem.

        Who decided that maths should be done fast anyway?!!

          • Yeah.

            This is true. But it has nothing to do with being actually good at math. A bit like memorizing science facts doesn’t make you a good scientist. sigh…

            • I agree

              and it really works against my kid who likes to be the first one done! and then make basic errors.  We’re continually trying to get him to slow down and the speed drills make that a lot harder.

        • oh, that was so my problem

          we had timed maths tests in third grade. Five minutes to finish a worksheet full of addition, then subtraction, then multiplication, then division. Teacher would put a giant stopclock on the blackboard and give us minute warnings. I remember being absolutely frozen in terror and hardly being able to finish even five.

          Hmm… wonder why I thought I was stupid at maths straight until I hit economics in grad school???

          • I’ve seen it done well

            You do the One Minute Math, tailored to your skill level, then grade your own paper and graph your results in your folder. (Not the teacher’s folder; your folder.) If there’s a dip in the graph, approach with curiosity, never shame. If you need help understanding your mistakes, ask a friend or a grown-up.

            If the clock makes you mental, turn your back and pretend it’s not there. Do your best. Yes, it’s okay to move to a location that makes you feel better.

            I really liked those things in school because I was good at them and the racing aspect was fun for me. And we did stuff that was less appealing to me that other people ate up. Imagine that — people are different! Now where have I heard that before…. ;)

      • Khan academy can be good for simple speed drills

        It rewards the kids for going fast if they do, but says nothing if they don’t, and the repetitive nature of entering the data tends to make you faster over time. It checks your answer before you move to the next one, too.

  6. math?

    Elisa…i love the curriculum you talk about for your school.  it reminds me of BPC in Berkeley.  i am also a total deadhead when it comes to math.  however, BPC not only had great socratic method of teaching and emphasized music, spanish, art and drama…they also had a wonderful math program.  Cassie was  in Math Club and many lauded BPC’s math program.  now ask me what they used…no clue!  i might contact them and ask what they use for their math program.  what i do know is Cassie competed regulary with both public and private schools in math competitions and BPC always did well and was very well respected.  i will contact Cass and ask her and will send you a note.

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