In the past 20 years, parents have taken to heart public-awareness campaigns urging them to read to their children every night. But math initiatives have not gained as much traction—even as emerging evidence suggests early math may be one of the most critical school-readiness skills.
A survey last month of more than 2,500 parents found that they generally rank math and science as lower in importance and relevance to their children’s lives than reading. Moreover, 38 percent of parents, including half the fathers surveyed, agreed with the statement “Skills in math are mostly useful for those that have careers related to math, so average Americans do not have much need for math skills,” according to the survey by the Overdeck and Simons foundations.
“Nobody is proud to say, ‘I can barely read,’ but plenty of parents are proud to stand up and say, ‘I can barely do math, I didn’t grow up doing well in math, and my kid’s not doing well in math; that’s just the way it is,’ ” said Mike Steele, a math education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was not associated with the study.
“We need to shift the mindset that math is just some innate ability that has a genetic component, and you are either a math person or you are not, to a conception that everybody can do math with effort and support … and to understand why that’s important.”
Early Math Critical
In fact, some evidence suggests early-math skills can be crucial to students’ overall school careers. In a 2007 study, Greg Duncan, an economist and education professor at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues used six large-scale longitudinal studies of students to look at what most affected a student’s long-term school outcomes. They found that a child’s math ability at the start of kindergarten was the best predictor of his or her academic performance in 8th grade, even more than early-reading scores, attention, or social-emotional development. That held true regardless of gender, race, or family income.
Analyses of federal longitudinal data released last year showed that school-readiness gaps between poor and wealthier kindergartners have narrowed by 16 percent in the last 20 years, partly credited to low-income parents reading to their preschool-age children more frequently. However, math-readiness gaps shrank by only 10 percent during that time, though it’s difficult to tell whether parents engaged their children more in math during that time. The federal data, which asked specific questions about the number of books in a child’s home and the literacy activities parents did with their children, did not have explicit questions about math activities.
Moreover, the same socioeconomic gaps seen in early literacy show up in math, too. For example, while low-income preschoolers are exposed to fewer words in general than their wealthier peers, there are also particular gaps in exposure to words related to math, such as numbers or size and shape comparisons, according to a forthcoming study in the journal Zero to Three. Parents were recorded for 7½ hours over 16 months, when their children were 1 to about 2½ years old, and researchers led by Susan Levine, an education professor at the University of Chicago, found wide differences in how often parents used number words and spatial descriptions, like shape or size.
“We find there’s a 60-fold difference in the amount of number talk,” Levine said. “At the low end, at 1 to 3 years of age, the kids are getting about 1,500 number words from their parents; at the high end, they are getting more than 100,000.” The gap was similar for spatial words.
In addition, children exposed to more math-related words as toddlers had better number and spatial sense by the time they were preschool age, Levine found. Although there were socioeconomic gaps in math exposure, it wasn’t uniform; there were also gaps for parents who were more or less anxious about math.
Parents do generally teach their toddlers to count to 10 around the same time they teach the ABCs, but don’t go beyond that to skills that have been found to be predictive of long-term math achievement, such as identifying the size of a small group by sight, according to Laura Overdeck, a board member of the Overdeck Family Foundation and the creator of Bedtime Math, a free app-based program that provides short math puzzles for parents to do with children of different ages. Parents “don’t pick [math activities] up again until the child is in school, and then math is homework and quizzes and tests,” she said.
Last month, Jon Schultz, a middle school special education teacher in Queen Anne’s County public schools in Maryland, and his wife, Erin Anderson, a sociologist at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., were taking their daughters to the National Math Festival in Washington. They described one of them, Grace, 7, as a “math lover” who just competed in the St. Jude Math-a-thon, a competition for children.
Grace and her 5-year-old sister, Claire, have both been in a comprehensive preschool since they were 2 and have been learning math there—"and from ‘Sesame Street’ the year before that,” Anderson said. But generally, they said parents have been told more about literacy activities to do at home than about math activities.
“I think it’s much easier to tell parents, ‘Here, read a book,’ than ‘Go do math problems,’ ” Schultz said.
Anderson added, “I think math is something that’s always kind of parceled out—and I was totally guilty of this as a kid—that you’re either good at math or not good at math. Reading is for everybody, but we kind of divide up who are the people who are good at math,” Anderson said.
“One reason reading efforts have been more successful so far, I think, is parents are more willing to try reading; they have less anxiety. Math is different because there’s a whole culture of math anxiety in this country, so in many cases, schools are asking parents to take a subject they hated and do it with their children,” Overdeck said.
What’s more, Overdeck said, changes in the way schools teach math have been more visible to parents than the changes made to the way reading is taught, making them feel less confident that they can help their children with even elementary-level homework.
“You look at the homework and say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t do it that way,’ ” said Johanna Olexy. Math is the favorite subject of her 3rd grade son, Jackson. “With reading, it’s easy to say, ‘I can read, I can pick a book and sit with my kids.’ But there’s always a certain point with math that I go, ‘Wait a minute, what is this again?’ ”
Solving Generational Math Fear
Increasing parent involvement in early math means changing what parents think math means, said Rebecca Parlakian, the senior director of programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit early education advocacy group.
“While it seems really clear what to do for early literacy—read to your child, talk, think out loud, say stories and rhymes—we don’t always make it clear what it looks like to do math with your kids every day,” she said. “What we hear from the general public is these subjects are supercomplex and really for later in school experiences. … It’s assumed math is something that’s taught in elementary school.”
It can be helpful, she said, if preschool and early-elementary teachers explain to parents how the art projects, board games, or puzzles children do in class relate to math skills. For preschoolers, simply playing a board game with dice or sorting toys by different rules builds early math understanding. “It may not look like what parents think math looks like in their heads, but that’s part of the learning process,” Parlakian said.
The University of Wisconsin’s Steele, who is expecting his first child, said he would start introducing math long before school, asking the child at age 2 or 3 about the patterns he or she sees all around.
“Math is all about quantifying and describing the world. I might ask, ‘How many windows do you think there are in this building?’ Count a few, look for patterns, figure out how you would decide how many there are,” Steele said. “I could look at a bookshelf and ask how many of those smaller books do you think would fit on that shelf, compared to the larger books below it? Really straightforward things like that get kids thinking about how they see mathematics in everything around them and get them into the habit of looking at the world through a mathematical lens.”
The Overdeck and Simons foundations are building up an inventory of math- and science-engagement projects crafted by teachers, which they and parents can do with students outside the classroom. So far, more than 1,000 projects have been submitted nationwide, and more than 700 have been funded. Eventually, the foundations hope to distribute materials or lesson plans from teachers’ proposals to other schools and parents.
Coverage of early-math education is supported in part by a grant from the CME Group Foundation, at www.cmegroupfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Do Parents See Math as ‘Less Useful’ Than Reading?