Back in 2011, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) set out to explore the effectiveness of an innovative way to teach elementary mathematics that was showing evidence of improving outcomes for students, commonly referred to as Singapore Mathematics. The exploration began with an initial pilot of Singapore Mathematics strategies at six schools across the state. One of those schools was North Wilkesboro Elementary, a public elementary school located in the mountains of North Carolina within the Wilkes County School District.
This March, North Wilkesboro Elementary was formally recognized by BWF as a Model School for Singapore Mathematics. The day’s attendance included Wilkes County Schools Superintendent Mark Byrd; Dr. Westley Wood, executive director of human resources; BWF Program Officer Alfred Mays; and Teacher Advisor to Gov. Roy Cooper, LaTanya Pattillo.
The school enrolls just over 300 students in grades K-5 and serves families with few economic resources. Over 60% of students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. With BWF support over the past eight years, the staff have purchased a variety of engaging manipulatives and resources and, through a large investment in teacher professional development, they have transformed their mathematics instruction. Further evidence of their rich teaching approach has been documented through an external evaluation provided by Cynosure Consulting.
Of significant note is the change in student test scores. Before the implementation of Singapore Mathematics, only 27% of fourth grade North Wilkesboro Elementary students were proficient on the state mathematics test. In 2017-18, after the new math curriculum was implemented, 63% of students were proficient. Fifth grade students also saw an impressive jump in test scores, with a 21% gain in proficiency percentage before and after Singapore Mathematics, as compared with an 8% gain district-wide.
Mays and Pattillo observed K-5 classrooms and witnessed firsthand the focal elements of Singapore Mathematics instruction. These elements included anchor tasks where students grapple with complex problems in small groups, the CPA approach where teachers expose students to novel concepts using tangible materials (concrete) and model drawing (pictorial) before presenting traditional equation representations (algorithms), and math journaling.
Importantly, Singapore Mathematics is not a curriculum or textbook, but an approach. The approach emphasizes deep conceptual understanding and provides a framework and tools that allow students to learn “the why before the how.” In reflecting back on her experience observing mathematics instruction at North Wilkesboro Elementary, Pattillo was most impressed by the powerful and meaningful ways that students were engaged.
“The teachers at North Wilkesboro Elementary School used multiple strategies that allowed students to learn and practice their math skills with confidence. Students at all grade levels took charge of their learning, supporting each other during the process and leaning on their teacher only when they needed help,” said Pattillo.
The visitors also had opportunities to converse with teachers and administrators who shared their collective value of the Singapore Mathematics approach and described the process by which teachers were able to deliver consistent, high-quality instruction. The key ingredient, they said, was continuous professional development provided externally by dynamic experts in the approach (e.g., Dr. Year Ban Yar) and internally through a school-based coach.
“It was exciting to hear the teachers attribute their effectiveness and their ability to enhance their student’s success to the training and professional development they received through Singapore Mathematics,” Pattillo said.
Not surprisingly, North Wilkesboro Elementary is poised to be a leader in the state on implementing Singapore Mathematics. Through the support of the BWF, leaders are cultivating a community of practitioners through facilitation of a virtual professional learning community, the creation of blueprints and building of a repository to support schools interested in implementing the Singapore Mathematics approach, and hosting an annual summit at Wilkes County Schools’ Central Services. This event takes place in June and is free to all educators. This year’s summit was held on June 18 and included over 50 educators from across the state. Another summit is planned for June 2020 as well.
In addition to organizing the summit, in their role as a Model School, North Wilkesboro Elementary frequently welcomes teams of visitors to their classes to observe the rigor of the instruction and engagement of students and teachers applying the Singapore Mathematics approach. Interested teachers and administrators are encouraged to reach out to the school to learn more.