Educators counting on new math strategy



Photos by Ron Leir/ Paula and Bob Ellis (above), parents of a first-grader, and teacher Jennifer Scardino (below) favor the use of “manipulatives” as a math learning tool for children.


By Ron Leir

The township’s  public schools are going math crazy.
When kids in kindergarten through grade 5 came back to the classroom for the start of the fall term, they were introduced to a new approach to what educators used to call arithmetic.
Now, however, students will be asked to cozy up to “Math in Focus” or “Singapore Math,” named, appropriately, for that city-state off the Malay Peninsula that, in the 1980s, developed its own math curriculum for primary students, focusing on problem solving and model drawing.
At the recommendation of Schools Superintendent Tracey Marinelli, the Lyndhurst Board of Education bought into the concept, investing local funds for textbooks, workbooks and software computer packages.
The change impacts some 600 children spread among six elementary schools.
Marinelli declined to say how much was spent because the district got a break on the retail price from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of the teaching materials.
What sold her on the value of those materials, Marinelli said, was that the curriculum “is directly aligned to the state (Department of Education) common core standards” and offered “a good blend of both hands-on and more traditional ‘skill and drill’ learning.”
Asked if students’ performance in math prompted the change in curriculum, Marinelli said that Lyndhurst meets the federal AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) benchmarks “but there’s always room for improvement.”
Marinelli commended district math teachers for agreeing to give their time gratis for several days during their summer break to attend professional service workshops to familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of the Singapore technique.
Math teachers from the Rutherford public school system, which has also decided to go with the Singapore method, participated in the training sessions, which alternated between the two districts, Marinelli said.
Marlene Krupp, Lyndhurst math supervisor for primary grades, is also high on the merits of the Singapore system for its use of “manipulatives” that help students transition from concrete objects to abstract concepts.
Additionally, Krupp said, the curriculum “looks for mastery of those concepts before students can move on” to the next lesson.
Elaborating, Marinelli said that over the course of a typical five-day lesson on a particular mathematical concept, the teacher serves as “lecturer, observer and coach” in shepherding her students through the lesson.
And, in this context, she said, the student’s math textbook “never goes home with the student for homework.” Instead, the teacher will assign a review lesson in a workbook to students who have documented mastery of a given concept over the course of the five-day lesson. If a student has failed to master the lesson, the teacher can provide an online software drill or worksheet to use at home. For an exceptional student, the teacher can offer an enrichment package.
As explained by a publisher’s pamphlet, a signature aspect of the Singapore system features the use of rectangular “bars” or bar models to show the relationship between known and unknown numerical quantities and to solve problems related to these quantities.
It also uses representative photos, icons and thought bubbles that model the thought processes students are encouraged to use to solve problems. Journal writing further reinforces a child’s ability to do a self-check on whether he or she really understands the work.
Some 45 parents responded to a district invitation to learn more about the new system last Wednesday night at Washington Elementary School.
They heard Hoover Herrera, a math coach for the Newark school system, explain how the Singapore government – desperate to improve children’s performance in math – invested 20% of its GNP in education, sending its educators around the globe – to Australia, Switzerland and the U.S. – in search of the best math teaching systems.
That research has apparently paid off. As noted by Wikipedia: “The (Singapore) method has become more popular since the release of scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2003 showed Singapore at the top of the world in 4th and 8th grade mathematics.”
At Washington School, several math teachers were on hand with samples of the Singapore system’s educational tools to show interested parents.
Lyndhurst grade 2 teacher Jennifer Scardino, an 11-year veteran of the classroom, said she finds the system “wonderful” since it “allows us to differentiate students on various (performance) levels” and it provides parents with “access to online resources” to help guide their children.
Parents seemed to like it, too.
Renata Sales, who attended the demonstration with her son Matthew, a 5th grader, said she was impressed. “I’ll be going online to check it out more,” she said.
“I think it’s good,” Matthew affirmed.
And Paula and Bob Ellis, parents of 1st-grader Angela, were also sold on the concept. “I like it a lot,” said Paula. “I think it’s better – it makes more sense using manipulatives to make sense of abstract concepts.”

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