Why Is Providence Changing How It Teaches Math?

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right” source=”OUR VISION for a Classical School”] At Providence, we place a high value on mathematics and the sciences and pursue them with rigor and excellence. We do not approach these subjects as merely a set of facts to be memorized and parroted… we seek to inculcate the art of inquiry and observation, to grasp concepts and mathematical insight, to cultivate curiosity and deep perception.[/quote]

At Providence, we want students to be able to use math comfortably and fluently throughout their lives in the same way they use and enjoy reading and writing. We want them to know why math works, why math matters, and how to solve problems as they study, explore and enjoy the beauty and order of God’s created world. To advance these goals, we have adopted a new curriculum this year.

For the 2014-2015 school year, Providence is introducing Math in Focus, the U.S. brand of Singapore math in grades K-6.  The school chose this curriculum because it continues the conceptual focus of the Asian math program used at Providence during the last six years, while providing more traditional problem solving exercises, teacher support, and both extra practice and extra challenge resources for students.

First, A Little History: The Pluses and Minuses of Our Former Curricula

In 2008 the Providence board decided to change the math curriculum used in the grammar school (grades K-6.)  The leadership of the school was not satisfied with the level of math mastery in the students who had been taught using Saxon math.  Saxon math provided much math problem practice, but did not emphasize teaching why math works or why math matters.  So, at that point the school decided to adopt RightStart, an Asian-based math curriculum.

The strengths of Asian-based math systems have been well documented. Developed in the early 1980s for the Singapore public school system, Singapore math was recognized internationally by the end of the decade as that country surpassed all others in math proficiency.  The British adopted the system first, followed by select American homeschoolers.  Now, Singapore math is one of the leading curricula used in classical schools.  By teaching students the conceptual backing of math and mental math methods, Singapore math equips students to reason through math problems, preparing them for more advanced math concepts.

Providence found that the RightStart curriculum was strong in teaching the conceptual basis of math to students, but teachers found it less than ideal for several reasons.  For one thing, RightStart is non-standard in the order that topics are introduced as well as in the presentation of problems and topics.  Secondly, RightStart exposes students to very few word problems. The curriculum also lacks review so that Providence teachers saw students regress in calculation ability in later grades simply due to lack of practice.  Lastly, RightStart discourages memorization of math facts.  As a result, a number of students struggled to solve problems quickly, because they had to reason through basic components of problems, such as multiplication facts.  These weaknesses made math standardized testing unnecessarily difficult for some students, but more importantly, the curriculum didn’t provide enough support for both students who struggled to understand the math concepts, and those who required more challenge.

So, the Providence curriculum committee began evaluating other curriculum options for K-6 math.  Fairly quickly, the group found that Singapore math had significant advantages over the other options.  They decided to propose migrating to Math in Focus, the U.S. brand of Singapore math.  The Providence board approved the change in the fall of 2013, to be implemented the following school year.

singapore-math-frameworkHow Math in Focus Serves our Students and Teachers

Like RightStart, Math in Focus concentrates on the conceptual underpinnings of math – why math works, why math matters, and how to solve problems.  It starts with concrete manipulatives, moving to pictorial representations of problems such as the powerful bar model tool, and arriving at abstract problem-solving.  Those evaluating the curriculum found it to be balanced, both teaching the concepts, and providing adequate review and practice.

Math in Focus provides many more resources to support teachers who are teaching students with different abilities and aptitudes.  For students who quickly and easily master a topic, Math in Focus provides extra challenge, or enrichment pages which can be used in the classroom as other students are finishing up the basic lesson.  For students who struggle with a concept, Math in Focus provides extra practice pages which can be sent home, or done in the classroom.

“Common Core” or “Classical Core”?

In our politically-charged society, some have expressed concern that Math in Focus is labeled as “Common Core.”  As a classical school, Providence has no interest in pursuing common core standards in any part of its curriculum.  The Math in Focus curriculum was not written based on common core standards, but rather is simply the Singapore math system re-packaged for the American market.  Some of the changes from the original version include using U.S. currency, English measurements, and displaying pictures of non-Asian students.  The committee found that there is not a significant difference in the curriculum before it was labeled “Common Core” and after it was given that designation, primarily for marketing reasons.

Finally, The Way Forward: How Does It All Add Up?

vsgs_na_mifOur hope is that with the implementation of Math in Focus, Providence families will see improvement in their student’s math attitudes, ability to solve problems, and confidence in using math in daily life. Our goal is that Providence students are able to use math comfortably and fluently throughout their lives in the same way they use and enjoy reading and writing.  Homework problems will likely look more familiar to parents than they have in the past, but some may push students to engage with the underlying concepts of the problem more than many more traditional American textbooks. Students will have more opportunities to practice and apply particular concepts and should become more confident with homework problems over time. If parents or students notice an individual need for more practice of a particular concept, they should ask their teacher for additional resources.

While we have great hopes for this curriculum, there is a learning curve to implementing any new system. The grammar school teachers are working hard to help students adjust to this change.  As always if parents have concerns or feedback, they should feel free to contact their child’s classroom teacher.

Mrs. Keri Stoner – Grammar School Lead Teacher
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