Special Report
Early Childhood

Preschool Teachers Get a Boost in Teaching Early Math

By Christina A. Samuels — April 25, 2017 5 min read
Anna Cooper, shown here working with students at the One Hope United—Bridgeport II Early Learning Center in Chicago, is among the teachers infusing more math into their work with preschoolers after training with the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute.
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A large body of research evidence suggests that strong math skills in young children are a powerful predictor of future academic success.

But early-childhood educators—the professionals who are expected to help impart those early-math skills—are often left out of the professional-development programs that are commonplace for their peers who teach elementary and later grades.

That’s slowly starting to change. School districts and early-childhood providers around the country, often with the support of researchers in early-math development, are making strides in reaching out to this traditionally neglected workforce.

In some cases, preschool teachers are receiving stipends to support weekend training sessions. In other programs, coaches come to early-childhood classrooms to demonstrate ways to infuse math learning into everyday interactions with young children. Head Start plans to enter the PD space in a major way by August: While not focusing solely on math, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children is requiring all of its centers to offer “evidence-based” PD to their teachers, including mentor coaching.

The goal of these programs is to help early-childhood teachers beat back their own math anxiety and become more adept at weaving math “talk” into conversations with their young charges. But they have an additional benefit—many early-childhood educators say they appreciate the opportunity to hone their craft.

Megan Franke, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has worked with several districts in her state at bringing math PD to preschool teachers. In one Los Angeles-area district, “honest to goodness, the teachers cried,” Franke said. “They said, ‘This is the first time that we have felt that we are professionals that are contributing to our own ongoing learning and also the learning of other people.’ ”

Franke continued, “It just made me stop and realize how hard preschool teachers work, and how very rarely we tell them they’re doing some awesome work for young people.”

But researchers have found that young children can master sophisticated math-related content, and they should be encouraged to do so. A frequently cited 2007 study, “School Readiness and Later Achievement,” analyzed several large national and international data sets that tracked children’s academic achievement. Led by University of California, Irvine Professor Greg J. Duncan, the researchers found that early-math skills, followed by reading skills and then attention skills, were powerful predictors of later learning.

Matching Expecations With Opportunities

But while math experts have agreed that young children should get high-quality math instruction, little has changed in the professional lives of early-childhood educators, said Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford University and the chairwoman of Development and Research on Early Math Education, a network of university researchers advancing young children’s opportunities to develop math skills. The academic requirements needed to enter the early-education field vary widely—some early-childhood care providers can be hired with a high school diploma; others have to have college degrees. Preschool teachers, on average, earn 60 percent of the salaries of kindergarten teachers. Turnover in the field is high.

All those issues have led to a sense among some that the workforce isn’t worth a lot of investment, Stipek said.

“The workforce issues just haven’t caught up with the expectations,” she said. “My hope is that policymakers start to realize you can’t put all these expectations on people without providing them the support they need to meet those expectations.”

Then there is the math anxiety, Stipek said. Preschool teachers are often particularly worried that they don’t have the skills to provide pupils what they need.

The way to get around that is to not think of math as a set of discrete skills, said Lisa Ginet, the assistant director of instruction for the Early Math Collaborative, based at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school in child development. (Erikson receives some funding from the CME Group Foundation, which also provides support to Education Week to cover early math.)

“Learning about math is about learning how to think, it’s about learning how to solve problems,” Ginet said. “Math is one of the ways that we make sense of the world.”

And preschool teachers are often already adept at helping children understand how to make sense of the world, she said.

As part of a professional-development activity with teachers, Ginet said, she may ask each teacher to place two or three items that they’re carrying with them on a table. Then, in small groups, the teachers are asked to sort those items—but she won’t tell them how. As the adults think about how to sort items by size or color or shape, it introduces the math concept of understanding patterns. It’s a low-key way to introduce educators to what they already know, she said.

“We want mathematical problem-solving to feel as natural and obvious as talking about storybooks does. We want it to be useful to people,” Ginet said.

Early Educators as Professionals

The Erikson Institute’s work has focused on a “whole teacher” approach, which simultaneously addresses early educators’ attitudes, knowledge, and practice. Some early research shows that the approach has a promising positive impact on children’s math skills.

In a district-based preschool program, Allyson Krogmann-Jordan, an early-learning coach for the 11,000-student Santa Monica-Malibu Unified district in California, offers another technique for providing PD to the early-childhood educators she works with. Rather than suggesting their current practice could be better, she models a lesson for them and then asks for feedback. That opens a conversation that doesn’t leave a teacher feeling criticized. Santa Monica-Malibu is one of the districts that Franke, the UCLA professor, has worked with.

“A lot of the resistance to having visitors in the classroom is that [teachers] don’t want the focus on them. They are feeling uncomfortable or insecure with their own skills,” said Krogmann-Jordan. “At the end of the day, they all work so incredibly hard. I think that they just need that validation that they do know a lot, and they’re professionals.”

But even in a district that is willing to make the effort, offering PD to preschool teachers presents logistical challenges. For the preschool programs that are placed at district schools, Santa Monica-Malibu is able to provide PD time for some teachers. For preschool programs offered in other centers, it’s hard to get substitute teachers to fill in and allow those teachers the chance to participate.

Patty Romo, a preschool teacher at Santa Monica-Malibu since 1994, has had an opportunity to get math PD along with teachers in the early-elementary grades. Before the training, “I thought, math, you sit down at a table and you do counting or you do little math problems. After taking this, I realized that math is everywhere,” she said. “It helped me use every little moment in the classroom as a teachable moment.”

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 April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as Supporting Math Learning by Helping Early Educators


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