Immediate academic gains from early-childhood programs often fade as children move into upper elementary school. But a new study suggests math supports in the earliest grades may build on each other over years to create longer-term benefits in math achievement and attendance.
In the latest report of an ongoing evaluation of the Making Pre-K Count and High 5s math programs in New York City schools, the research group MDRC found neither program on its own led to significant, sustained math gains by 3rd grade. Yet students who participated in both the preschool and the kindergarten interventions performed significantly better in math and were less likely to miss school by grade 3, compared with students who did not participate.
In the study, students in 2013-14 were randomly assigned within their public schools to participate in standard preschool and kindergarten or the preschool math curriculum alone or with High 5s, a kindergarten enrichment program in which math tutors each met with three to four children for 30-minute math “clubs” three times a week, either during a free period or outside of school.
The enrichment sessions focused on games, songs, and other activities to help students practice geometry, pattern recognition, and other math concepts, rather than basic counting drills in the standard classes.
Shira Mattera, the study author, said the results suggest “the effects seem to be particularly pronounced for children with the most room to grow.”
Students who started preschool with lower-than-average language and attention skills showed math gains by 3rd grade equal to a quarter to a third of a standard deviation. Two years of math enrichment in preschool and kindergarten were enough to produce 3rd-grade math gains large enough to close about 40 percent of the math performance gap between low- and high-income 4th graders.
Attendance improved for participants
Moreover, the researchers found that 28 percent of the students who participated in two years of math enrichment were chronically absent—meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days—in grade 3, compared with 37 percent of 3rd graders who had not received the early math services.
While chronic absenteeism in early grades often comes from family challenges and stressors that the study did not measure, the researchers did offer some speculation about why students who received math enrichment missed less school later on, Mattera said.
“In kindergarten, in our earlier years of analysis, we found effects of the programs on children’s attitudes towards math. Perhaps, how kids either viewed school or viewed math might have influenced whether they wanted to come to school,” she said. “It’s also possible that teachers saw children who were doing better in math or liked math better as more engaged,” and so built better relationships with them.
These academic and attendance benefits may be particularly important for school districts working to catch up large cohorts of students who are now entering preschool with less formal early-childhood education as a result of the pandemic.
“Both of these programs build on learning trajectory development. All children develop math abilities on a general developmental sequence,” she said. “If you understand the skills that are associated with that sequence, you identify activities that are appropriate for meeting the child’s needs and learning goals to move them to the next part of the sequence.
“I think it makes a nice addition to how people can think about the wide range of skills that children will be coming in with after COVID, because while some students may be coming in with lower skills, because they’ve had missed opportunities, some children may have had a different set of opportunities and teachers are really going have to differentiate across that,” she said. “And this gives an entre into thinking about how you could use similar math activities to meet the needs of a wide range of children’s skills and experiences.”