Informing Grades 1-6 Mathematics Standards Development: What Can Be Learned From High-Performing Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore
The United States is embarking on a historic policy reversal as it moves toward developing common education standards in reading and mathematics. Supporting this movement is the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race-to-the-Top (RttT) competition under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. To inform these efforts, this report examines one approach to internationally benchmarking mathematics standards for grades 1–6 against the composite standards of three high-mathematics-performing Asian countries: Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore.
The U.S. common standards movement offers a unique opportunity to address a well-documented weakness found in many State mathematics standards: many topics are taught in a single grade and many topics are repeated over several grades. This topic spread has led to the well-known characterization of U.S. elementary mathematics curriculum expectations as “a mile wide and an inch deep” (Schmidt, Houang, & Cogan, 2002).
The move to common internationally benchmarked standards offers an opportunity to model U.S. standards off of those of high-performing countries such as Singapore, which offer a more coherent and focused set of expectations. The composite Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore standards developed in this report present one effort to internationally benchmark grades 1–6 mathematics standards against high-performing nations.
The Hong Kong, Korean, and Singapore standards were chosen for international benchmarking because of their high performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments and the availability of these standards in English on the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) website. Because of the concern over lack of rich mathematical content progression with many U.S. state standards, our particular focus in developing a composite set of standards is on learning progressions—how systematically the mathematical content progresses across the grades within a broad mathematical topic.
The composite standards have a number of features that can inform an international benchmarking process for the development of K–6 mathematics standards in the United States. First, the composite standards concentrate the early learning of mathematics on the numbers, measurement, and geometry strands with less emphasis on data analysis and little exposure to algebra. The Hong Kong standards for grades 1–3 devote approximately half the targeted time to numbers and almost all the time remaining to geometry and measurement.
The development of standards is only the front end of a long-term reform process. It is critical that sound standards be written to guide the rest of the reform process, however, we do not imply that merely replicating these composite standards is sufficient. Rather we have presented a set of composite mathematics standards of the three Asian high performers to offer a theoretically and empirically valid international benchmark for the development of common U.S. standards in mathematics. We have explained how these composite standards differ from the typical curriculum found in the United States and noted how they address some of the recognized deficiencies found in the U.S. grades 1–6 mathematics curricula.