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Topic: [ncsm-members] Math Matters, Even for Little Kids
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Math Matters, Even for Little Kids
Posted: Apr 10, 2012 3:00 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, March 28, 2012, Volue 31, Issue 26, pp. 27,29. See

Math Matters, Even for Little Kids

By Deborah Stipek, Alan Schoenfeld, and Deanna Gomby

Everyone knows that children who are not reading at grade level by
3rd grade are fated to struggle academically throughout school.
Concerns about early literacy skills are justified because reading
skills at kindergarten entry predict later academic achievement.

But guess what predicts later academic success better than early
reading? Early math skills. In "School Readiness and Later
[ ] a
widely cited 2007 study of large longitudinal data sets, University
of California, Irvine, education professor Greg Duncan and his
colleagues found that in a comparison of math, literacy, and
social-emotional skills at kindergarten entry, "early math concepts,
such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, were the most powerful
predictors of later learning." A large-scale Canadian study from 2010
echoes those findings: Math skills at school entry predicted math
skills and even reading skills in 3rd and 2nd grade, respectively,
better than reading skills at school entry. Although the mechanisms
underlying such associations are not yet understood, the importance
of early mathematics, and thus of access to it for all students, is

We have a long way to go. Vanderbilt University education professor
Dale Farran reports in her recent study of preschool classrooms that
math was intentionally taught by teachers only 2.5 percent of the
day. Increasing the amount of time children spend engaged in
instruction involving math conversation from 2 percent to only 4
percent led to significant math gains. Young children will take
advantage of the opportunities we give them to develop their
understanding of math.

The time is right for increasing our attention to early math. The
K-12 common-core standards offer a clear and nearly universal target
for the math skills U.S. children will need to master in the
beginning elementary grades.

How do we create a pragmatic agenda to enhance children's early
mathematical experiences and prepare them for the standards-based
math they will encounter when they enter school? We have a number of

SIDEBAR: "We need pre-K standards that are aligned with the common
core, and having 50 states do that work independently is inefficient."

We urge states to create prekindergarten standards using the same
collective strategy that produced the Common Core State Standards. We
need pre-K standards that are aligned with the common core, and
having 50 states do that work independently is inefficient.
Common-core pre-K standards, developed by the nation's best experts
in early learning and child development, could serve as the backbone
for efforts to develop greater alignment between children's preschool
and K-12 experiences. They could also guide policies on teacher
preparation, curricula, and assessments of children and programs.

Increasing young children's math learning opportunities will not come
easily. If you think it is difficult to create broad-scale changes in
K-12, try pre-K, where there is huge diversity in institutional

The education of preschool-age children occurs in Head Start, state
preschools, family child-care homes, child-care centers, and public
and private schools-each with its own sources of funding and
management structures, and teaching staffs with varying levels of
training and experience and persistently high rates of turnover.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting past resistance to academically
focused instruction in early-childhood settings. Some of the
resistance is due to legitimate concerns about bringing K-12
accountability methods to preschool and using developmentally
inappropriate methods to teach isolated skills. The resistance also
reflects an assumption that attention to math will crowd the
curriculum and result in less time for play, literacy activities, or
social-emotional development.

To overcome these concerns, the field needs developmentally
appropriate, child-friendly curricula and materials. Teacher training
is needed to help early-childhood educators understand that learning
is not a zero-sum game: Meaningful math activities in the context of
play can foster crucial aspects of children's development. The goals
in math instruction are to build on what young children know in ways
that children enjoy. For example, playing mathematical or strategy
games such as Chutes and Ladders or tic-tac-toe can build math and
problem-solving skills while also developing social skills (e.g.,
turn taking and cooperation), early-language skills, and cognitive
self-regulation. Developing a solution to sharing a plate of cookies
both builds rudimentary division skills and helps promote social

The most commonly encountered activities in preschool are among the
least effective for teaching children math. Learning to count by rote
teaches children number words and their order, but it does not teach
them number sense, any more than singing the letters L-M-N-O-P in the
alphabet song teaches phonemic awareness. Knowing that "four" follows
"three" is of minimal value if a child doesn't know what "four"
means. Paper-and-pencil tasks (e.g., drawing a line from the numeral
4 to a picture of four apples; coloring in an outline of the numeral
4) are fine for practice, but they don't teach children a sense of

The goal of math instruction is to help children develop, discuss,
and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to solve
mathematical problems. To achieve this goal, young children need
problems to solve and latitude to construct their own strategies.
Teaching math effectively requires a focus on children's
understanding of the core foundational concepts in mathematics. Such
teaching can take place in the context of puzzles and games. Children
using a shape sorter, for instance, learn the properties of geometric
objects (e.g., three-sided or round figures don't fit in four-sided
holes), not simply their names.

Typical assessments of young children's math understanding include a
very limited number of math concepts, and children can often reach
the right answer without genuine understanding. New instruments
should be developed that assess critical early math concepts and also
tap deep understanding. Summative assessments designed for program
accountability should be supplemented with and aligned to formative
assessments. All assessments should be developmentally appropriate in
content and form. The purpose of assessment is to help identify what
children know to help them build new knowledge. It is not appropriate
to subject young children to extended formal testing.

Few early-childhood educators are prepared to teach math. For young
children to have access to meaningful opportunities to learn math,
new requirements for preschool teachers will need to be developed.
Requirements should include opportunities to learn what is known
about young children's development related to mathematics, as well as
strategies for assessing children's understanding and teaching math
to young children.

Increasing preservice requirements related to teaching math to young
children will necessitate expanded offerings in institutions that
provide preservice training. States should review the curriculum and
training opportunities offered by two- and four-year colleges to
ensure that students learn to teach mathematics effectively to young
children. To support current preschool teachers, early-childhood
programs should build internal capacity, such as by hiring coaches
with expertise in teaching math to young children, or investing in
the development of expertise in a teacher who can serve as a mentor
to other teachers.

Mathematics has been neglected in educational settings for young
children, but change is possible. The shift in recent years to focus
on the importance of early literacy has successfully increased
investment in reading and bolstered capacity among teachers and
teaching institutions. That change began with research findings that
demonstrated the importance of early reading and the strategies that
can be implemented in homes and at schools to help children develop
their reading skills. We need analogous concerted efforts to bring
the importance of early math learning to the attention of
policymakers, educators, and the public.
Deborah Stipek is a professor and former dean of the school of
education at Stanford University. Alan Schoenfeld is the Elizabeth
and Edward Conner professor of education and affiliated professor of
mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. Deanna Gomby
is the vice president for education at the Heising-Simons Foundation,
which is based in Palo Alto, Calif.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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