Early Childhood

NRC Urges Greater Focus on Preschool Math

By Sean Cavanagh — July 02, 2009 4 min read
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Early-childhood education, whether delivered through federal preschool programs or other means, needs to be revamped to place more emphasis on math instruction and prepare adults to cover that material more effectively, a new report concludes.

The report, released today by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, reiterates a point commonly made by early-childhood advocates: that mathematics is often neglected in prekindergarten settings, in contrast to the heavy focus placed on literacy.

That neglect stems in part from preschool instructors’ lack of comfort with math, as well as parents’ fear of that subject, the authors say.

“It’s fair to say the attention is almost entirely on reading and literacy, without recognizing the importance of math,” said Christopher T. Cross, who co-edited the report and chaired the committee that produced it.

That lack of attention comes despite research that shows many young students arriving in preschool with an ability, and a willingness, to tackle math lessons, added Mr. Cross, the chairman of Cross & Joftus, an education policy consulting company based in Washington and California.

“There’s a natural curiosity about mathematical things,” he added, “even if they don’t call it math.”

Patchwork System

The consequences of not providing an early math foundation to disadvantaged students, given their more limited opportunities to learn the subject away from school, can be especially great, the authors found. At the same time, high-quality math instruction can help overcome “systematic inequities in educational outcomes and later career opportunities,” they say.

The report focuses primarily on children between the ages of 2 and 6, according to the NRC.

The system of early-childhood education in the United States is a “loosely sewn-together patchwork” of programs and services, as the report describes it. About 60 percent of preschool-age children are in “center-based” care, including services run through the federal Head Start program; roughly 21 percent receive some sort of home-based care; and about 20 percent have no formal child-care arrangements, according to the NRC report.

In addition to the Head Start program, which serves an estimated 908,000 students, many children in center-based care are enrolled in state-funded preschool, as the report points out. A number of states have moved to fund preschool programs for low-income families in recent years.

It follows that bringing about the changes in preschool teachers’ training and professional development, Mr. Cross said, would likely require action from several players, including federal officials who administer Head Start, professional associations, and state licensing programs.

“It’s a complex set of actors who would have to implement this,” Mr. Cross said.

Whole Numbers, Geometry

The report recommends that providers of early-childhood education revise their math curricula, based partly on research on children’s cognitive development. States should overhaul their standards and guidelines to reflect that research, and so should publishers, the authors say.

But the report also goes further, calling for early-childhood programs to focus on developing students’ skills in a number of specific areas of math, which the authors see as crucial. Those topics include whole numbers, operations, geometry, and measurement.

In order to give early-childhood providers direction, the report’s authors felt “we couldn’t be too abstract,” Mr. Cross explained. The report explores strategies for exploring that material in an age-appropriate way.

The authors also call for new course requirements for early-childhood teachers, with a focus on crucial math content, and on honing teachers’ ability to deliver math instruction in different settings—to individual students, for instance, and to large and small groups of them. It also calls for new professional-development efforts, to help teachers already working in preschools.

Parents can also be encouraged to promote early math learning, the report says. Early-childhood providers can do more to provide guidance to families working with children at home; there also needs to be an expansion of informal math instruction through media and technology, the authors say.

Christina Satkowski, a program associate in education policy at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said interest in promoting more focused, early-childhood math instruction has received considerable attention from state officials, academic researchers, and others in recent years.

An important, next step is to provide stronger links between early-childhood math content and later grades, she argued.

“At the moment, many pre-K and early-childhood programs are disconnected from the K-12 system,” Ms. Satkowski said in an e-mail. “This report emphasizes the needs to create a seamless pre-K to 3rd grade continuum of math learning.”

Working Math Into Play

The National Research Council, headquartered in Washington, is one of several nonprofit institutions charged with providing advice to Congress, as part of the National Academies. The early-childhood study received funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Head Start; the agency’s Office of Planning Research and Evaluation; and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which has provided funding for coverage of math and science issues at Education Week.

Ms. Satkowski said she believed the report could broaden understanding of how many different routes into math are available to teachers and parents.

“[E]arly math instruction doesn’t have to be flashcards and worksheets,” Ms. Satkowski explained. “A good pre-K or kindergarten teacher knows how to effectively integrate math into child-initiated play activities with questions about the number of rocks in their pail, the relative size of the two spiders they drew,” and other means.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as NRC Urges Greater Focus on Preschool Math

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