It seems like every time I turn around, there is a new math method that is the perfect one to solve all the low scores, help students learn math, and is going to change everything. First it was Singapore Math, now its Shanghai Math.
I have not used either Singapore or Shanghai methods but I know one home schooling mother who loved Singapore math because it helped her daughter learn math better.
So what does the media say about similarities and differences of these two programs since both are reputed to have helped their countries score higher. One of the main similarities is the idea that all students can become good mathematicians and that all students progress at the same rate, covering the same lessons. They are all expected to meet high expectations so both programs set a higher bar than many other nations.
In Singapore, students are expected to take higher level mathematics and be prepared to take higher level tests. Further more, they all take the same math classes in the first few years of secondary school.
In Shanghai, math in both primary and secondary schools are taught by math specialists who teach one to three 35 min lessons daily while the rest of the day is spent in collaboration, correcting work, or going over exams. In Singapore, math specialists teach math in the upper elementary and secondary classes but only 50% of the primary teachers have a university degree at all so the textbooks are designed to be taught by someone who is not a math expert.
Both systems have built in time to learn the specific concept before moving on. They have a methodically prepared curriculum with carefully prepared lessons and resources. Discussion is valued in both systems so teachers are always asking questions, students are demonstrating work but time is spent in every lesson to go deeply into that one concept.
Both programs use specific visual representations connecting the visual with the abstract. Singapore regularly uses manipulatives such as unifix cubes to convey the concept so by secondary, students have a strongly developed number sense.
In both programs teachers base their teaching on the textbooks that all students use in the classroom. The math books used in Singapore are written and taught in English even though for most teachers and students, English is their second language. This means that all concepts have to be well enough illustrated to be understood by all students.
On the other hand the math books in Shanghai are highly prescriptive even to the point of telling the exact method of teaching the math lesson and how students will learn the lesson. Remember all students are expected to be on the same page and progress at exactly the same rate.
It was pointed out in Education Media Centre that country results for the PISA or TIMSS may be based more on how close the curriculum of the country matches the actual test questions on either of these two tests rather than the teaching style. Another person pointed out that students who come from a home where education is prized and who are expected to do well, do better in school. It also appears that the scores do not increase between the ages of 10 and 16 so it would appear that students need to develop a strong base in those early years.
We already know that if a student is not on level by the end of 3rd grade they have a significantly increased chance of not graduating and of dropping out. After all the reading I've done, especially on the Shanghai method, I wonder how their teaching method compares to schools in other regions of China. I also wonder if the PISA or TIMSS were given to students in say Beijing, or other places in China, would their scores be as high? I'm also wondering how many students are enrolled in the Shanghai school system and how many of those students complete a full school from K to grade 12 or equivalent.
According to what I read, China only requires that students attend 9 years of school and if they go further, their families are required to pay a small fee. I wonder how many students "drop out" at this point. I also know that students still take regular exams and I read where 80 percent of students attend night and weekend cram lessons to ensure they pass their exams. I wonder how many of these students who do well in Shanghai are taking these extra lessons to improve their grades?
I think it is wrong to adopt a system based on one test result that is limited and whose students may have had "extra" tutoring to pass. From my experience teachers who are confident in Math and who know their math tend to have students who do better than those whose teachers are "scared" of math. We need to find what works for our individual classes because one size does not fit all.