Look to China for Math?

The New York Times reported that the United Kingdom was investing heavily in textbooks used in schools in Shanghai, China.

Amy Qin writes:

Educators around the world were stunned when students in Shanghai came first in their international standardized testing debut, in 2010, besting their counterparts in dozens of countries in what some called a Sputnik-like moment.

Now, some British schools will try to replicate that success by using translated textbooks that are otherwise all but identical to those in public elementary schools around Shanghai.

Starting in January, teachers in England will have the option of using “Real Shanghai Mathematics,” a series of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English. The only difference? The renminbi symbols will be replaced by British pound signs.

She notes that the Shanghai style is very similar to the method used in Singapore and then writes:

The teaching method, known as the “mastery” approach, is based on the idea that all students can succeed in learning mathematics when given proper instruction. Whereas teachers in the West might describe a concept and then assign problems for students to solve individually, the mastery method is more interactive. Teachers frequently pose questions to students who are then expected to precisely explain both solutions and underlying principles in front of their classmates.

Students learn fewer concepts under this approach, which allows them to go into those concepts in greater depth. For fractions, for example, teachers might ask students to apply the underlying principle “part of a whole” in different contexts, making use of pictorial representations and other visual techniques to explore the abstract idea. Ideally, only when the entire class has demonstrated understanding or “mastery” of one concept does the teacher move to the next.

While Common Core advocates claim that Singapore’s math curriculum is similar to Common Core, such as an Achieve report that The Huffington Post reported on in 2013:

The standards don’t lead to a complete Algebra I course until high school, unlike in other high-achieving countries. An analysis by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that has supported the Common Core, found that Singapore’s math curriculum was similar to Common Core, but that in Singapore, students more quickly reach a higher level of math proficiency.

Like Shanghai (and Singapore) they also claim that Common Core uses fewer concepts:

When the Common Core standards were developed, policymakers looked to the success of other high-performing countries, including countries that scored well on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Remember: Singapore is consistently at the top.

It’s no surprise Common Core standards mirror several Singaporean approaches, including a narrower focus with greater depth. But to better align to the standards in each state, Brillon said Singapore Math Inc. introduced new textbooks last year.

The fact remains that Common Core Math focuses on skills, not concepts, unlike what is seen in Shanghai and Singapore.

In fact, there isn’t much alignment at all as a study from the American Educational Research Association found:

In mathematics, there are data for Finland, Japan, and Singapore on eighth-grade standards; alignments to the U.S. Common Core are .21, .17, and .13, respectively. All three of these countries have higher eighth-grade mathematics achievement levels than does the United States. The content differences that lead to these low levels of alignment for cognitive demand are, for all three countries, a much greater emphasis on “perform procedures” than found in the U.S. Common Core standards. For each country, approximately 75% of the content involves “perform procedures,” whereas in the Common Core standards, the percentage for procedures is 38%. Differences for the other five levels of cognitive demand are not as uniform across countries. However, none of the three countries puts as much as 1% of its content emphasis on “solve nonroutine problems,” whereas Common Core puts 4.5% of its content emphasis there. Clearly, these three benchmarking countries with high student achievement do not have standards that emphasize higher levels of cognitive demand than does the Common Core. Marginal distributions for coarse-grain topics are quite similar between each of the three benchmarking countries and the U.S. Common Core.

While there is a lot about the Chinese educational system that I would not want the United States to adopt, we would, perhaps, benefit from taking a closer look at how the Chinese teach math. While we may not want to completely adopt Shanghai math like the UK we should have a conversation about whether Common Core is taking the United States in the right direction.

I would submit that it is not.