The Real Lesson of Singapore Math!

By now you’ve probably heard that Singapore and Shanghai are the two places on earth with the smartest kids in the entire world. We can see their PISA scores (go to page 5) are right at the top.

Case closed, right? Whatever they are doing in education, we in the US need to emulate that in order to catch up! Common Core! StudentsFirst! Teach for America! Race to the Top! PARCC! Bust those teacher unions! No more recess! All test prep all the time! Charter Schools! Turn the schools over to the billionaires (Gates, Bloomberg, Koch family, Walton family, and their hirelings and shills)!

But wait a second.

Have you noticed that an ENORMOUS fraction of the low-skilled, low-paid people living in Singapore are temporary foreign workers from various parts of Asia and Africa and are not allowed to bring their kids with them? Those kids are raised back in the workers’ homelands by various relatives, far away, and only get to see their parents at long intervals (somebody has to fly somewhere); back home, jobs are even scarcer and worse-paid, so the parents go elsewhere to try support their families.

Now, everywhere in the world, family income is very, very closely linked to children’s test scores in school. It’s one of the tightest correlations there are in the social sciences, as you can see in the simple scatter-plots I have repeatedly shown in this blog over the past 4 or 5 years. (Try using terms like “poverty” “income” and “scores” together in the search box on this page and be prepared to look through a lot of posts with such graphs, from all over!)

If one-quarter to one-third of the population of a country was legally not permitted to have children in the schools, and it was the low-paying 1/4 to 1/3 of the population, then the scores of the remainder of the kids would, quite naturally, be pretty darned good, since the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of the distribution just got cut off.

If we systematically excluded the poorest quarter or third of our American student population from taking PISA, we know that our scores would be pretty darned high as well.*

Hmm, maybe the leaning tower of PISA hype is falling.

 

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*Let’s remember that this WAS official policy in many states of the USA up until 1865: a large fraction of the population (guess which one!) was forbidden to send their kids to schools at all and it was explicitly forbidden even to teach them to read privately. When Jim Crow was established from the 1870s to the early 1960s, school facilities for Blacks and Hispanics, BY DESIGN of the racist authorities, so inferior to those for whites that they were a national disgrace. Which is why the calls for going back to the good old days should be so infuriating. There WERE NO GOOD OLD DAYS.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. And yet no matter how many time these facts are pointed out to those who swear by Singapore Math and insist that it gives students a world-class primary/elementary mathematics education, and also believe that the “right” tests (the ones that show the results that fit their biases) will always give us better information than any fuzzy sort of performance-tasks with rubrics and human scoring. That’s if they bother to even acknowledge the potentially confounding information at all.

    After about a quarter century of involvement in the Math Wars and the Deform Wars, I’m convinced: there are simply no facts that can dislodge an educational conservative or neo-liberal from his/her fondest beliefs in free markets, one-size fits all curricular materials that stress algorithms and procedures over problem-solving and conceptual understanding (pretty much to the exclusion of the latter sort of activities), and a general approach to education that has nothing to do with learning (except for the elite) and everything to do with profiteering.

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  2. This article documents the similar situation in Shanghai: http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/23/shanghai-test-scores-and-the-mystery-of-the-missing-children/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

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