Give Them Math
“Sweetie, let’s move away from that toy cash register. Mommy thinks you’d have more fun playing dress-up!”
Conversations like this abound in videotapes of mothers steering their preschool-age children away from activities involving math, footage now being analyzed by researchers at Boston College.
With that kind of encouragement, is it any surprise that our fifteen-year-olds’ math scores on the international PISA tests are below the mean and haven’t budged in a decade?
Surprisingly few people know how important it is to teach little kids math, but the math a child knows upon starting kindergarten is one of the strongest predictors of later school success – at least as predictive as literacy and more than social-emotional skills.
Moreover, children delight in purposeful, playful mathematics instruction.
Picture this: Exuberant boys and girls at Pescadero Preschool dance and sing a counting song, following the lead of their energetic teacher, Norka Bayley. Later they gather on the rug to count, sort, and make patterns with small plastic bears of different colors. Ms. Bayley offers praise and questions like, “Are you sure there are 11? Can each bear lie down and go to sleep as you count it?”
The classroom is filled with math: a block “village” replete with cylindrical and rectangular towers, roads, and bridges; shelves lined with puzzles, Lincoln Logs, an abacus, and books -- in Spanish and English -- with titles like “Inch by Inch,” “Cinco,” and “One Grain of Rice.”
“It’s everywhere. How can we live without it?” said Ms. Bayley, referring to the abundance of math in the room – and in the world.
Ms. Bayley is one of a group of California preschool teachers who received professional development in early math teaching through a joint Stanford-UCLA teacher education project. Sadly, her classroom is an anomaly. In a recent Vanderbilt University study of early childhood classrooms, math was intentionally taught by teachers only three percent of the day.
Three percent is a travesty. Most children who begin kindergarten behind their peers in basic math never catch up, and children with persistent math problems in elementary school are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college.
Adults with poor math skills face life with a greatly reduced arsenal. They may not be able to compare prices, figure out tips, understand statistics, or fathom the economic promises of candidates running for office. Their employment options will be fewer and their wages lower. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that Americans who can't do simple arithmetic (e.g. dividing 300 by two), are more likely to end up in foreclosure than people with average math skills.
Teaching our young children math is not a big reach. We don’t need PhDs to do it. And yet, if we want our children to have a chance to grow up to become professionals capable of addressing the national and global challenges that are our legacy to them, we need to rethink our educational priorities.
The US Department of Education should establish an agenda focused on early math. Effective strategies for teaching math should be part of the training and professional development we give to all teachers of young children. Common core standards, including for math, should be extended to preschool so that our children’s learning is aligned rather than a series of fragmented experiences. Parents and caregivers should be encouraged to engage their children with math activities the same way they do with books (and dress-up).
Early childhood is fleeting, but what we give our young children lasts a lifetime and beyond. The gift of math will multiply for generations to come.
Liz Simons is president of the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation in Los Altos dedicated to sustainable, research-based solutions in education, environment, science, and policy. Early childhood education is a primary focus of the foundation’s work in education. The Heising-Simons Foundation is funding the longitudinal study at Boston College and the Stanford/UCLA math professional development project. Ms. Simons is also on the Leadership Council of Too Small to Fail.