Experts Say Young Children Need More Math

By Linda Jacobson — September 26, 2001 3 min read
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Some educators are worried that early-childhood education’s heavy emphasis on encouraging children’s literacy skills could be overshadowing the development of skills in another important area: mathematics.

In response to those concerns, the National Association for the Education of Young Children is working with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to draft a joint position statement about appropriate math instruction for 3- to 6-year-olds.

“This originated from concerns that we needed to send a message to the field about the importance of high-quality mathematical experiences,” said Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development at the Washington-based NAEYC, a 100,000-member professional organization.

The position statement is the latest in a series of activities over the past few years that has brought early-childhood educators and experts in math education together.

In 1998, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a conference for early-childhood educators and researchers to talk about math and science for preschoolers. Shortly after, the National Science Foundation asked for grant proposals from individuals or organizations working with young children in those subjects.

One of the projects to receive funding from the NSF and the ExxonMobil Foundation was a 2000 invitational conference organized by Douglas H. Clements, an education professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

At the conference, 110 people—including representatives from more than 40 state education departments—gathered to discuss mathematics standards for preschool and kindergarten. Mr. Clements is compiling the discussions and recommendations from that conference into a report titled “Engaging Young Children in Mathematics,” which is expected to be released next year.

Math Lessons

Authors of the new document are planning to organize it into two sets of recommendations.

The first part will offer descriptions of high-quality mathematical experiences for young children and the types of materials and activities that teachers can use to develop children’s awareness of such concepts as numbers and geometric shapes.

In the other section of recommendations, the authors will explain what it takes to equip early-childhood teachers with the knowledge and skills to strengthen their teaching of math. Simply taking more mathematics courses in college is not the answer, Ms. Hyson said.

The position statement—especially those areas focusing on teachers’ professional development—is being influenced by a National Research Council document released early this year. (“Forget Math Feud,Take Broader View, NRC Panel Urges,” Jan. 31, 2001.)

That 444-page report, “Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics,” recommended an overhaul of elementary and middle school mathematics and stressed that children need to acquire skills as well as a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. It also emphasized that such learning should begin before children enter formal schooling. And so, beginning with prekindergarten, teachers should allot as much as an hour a day for math activities, the report recommended.

‘Exclusive’ Focus Changes

With this current project undertaken with the math educators’ group, the NAEYC is continuing its practice of forming partnerships with subject-oriented professional associations to bring knowledge to early- childhood educators that they might not be exposed to otherwise.

For example, Ms. Hyson said, college-level instructors who spend time training child-care providers and directors might never have heard of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, an exam that was first administered to 38 countries in 1995 and again in 1999. TIMSS served as a rallying cry for improving math and science education in this country because U.S. students’ performance compared with their international peers’ disappointed many educators and policymakers.

Three years ago, the NAEYC worked with the International Reading Association to produce “Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children.” The document, which is still cited by literacy experts, was meant to communicate young children’s need for early reading experiences to the child-care providers and others who care for them.

While the new joint statement is not intended to counteract the strong emphasis on early literacy development—a top education priority for President Bush—Ms. Hyson said that an “exclusive focus on literacy” can inadvertently send the message that mathematics is not important.

“Our members have called for a similar kind of attention to other areas,” she said.

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