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Preschool Math, Why it adds up

Experts agree that early childhood education holds great potential for closing the nation’s education gap and boosting children’s long-term achievement. Yet scant attention is paid to one of the most important early subjects of all: math. Research has clearly shown that nearly from birth, children develop an “everyday mathematics”—informal ideas of more and less, taking away, shape, size, location, pattern and position—that is broad, complex and often sophisticated. Indeed, everyday math is so fundamental to children’s understanding of the world that they could not function without it. And math ability upon entry to kindergarten not only predicts later math achievement, but also may be an even better predictor of success in later grades than is early reading ability.
Low-socioeconomic status (SES) preschool children generally perform more poorly on many simple (particularly verbal) math tasks than do their more privileged peers. But both groups use similar strategies to solve problems, perform as well on non-verbal math tasks and exhibit few differences in the everyday math they use in free play. Both groups have the potential to learn school math.
Sadly, most preschools instruct children in a very narrow range of math content, or don’t teach them at all, while preparation of pre-K teachers focuses far more heavily on literacy than on math. Yet among leading professional organizations, there is growing consensus that early childhood math education is not only necessary, especially for low-SES children, but should be comprehensive. It should include play with materials and objects that set the stage for math learning; teachable moments, in which teachers observe kids in spontaneous situations that can be exploited to promote learning; teacher-guided projects of complex topics—like figuring out how to create a map of the classroom; and deliberate instruction using a planned curriculum to actively introduce math concepts, methods and language. This curriculum is not, of course, a textbook, but a carefully sequenced set of exciting activities.
At Teachers College, Boston University and Johns Hopkins University, my colleagues and I have created one such early math education program, “Big Math for Little Kids,” and are now evaluating its effectiveness through long-term studies. Other new curricula have also been created. But more work is needed—particularly research on teacher knowledge and how to enrich it; on teaching at the preschool level; and on what children can accomplish when they are given rich teaching and curriculum. After all, before the Web was invented, no one knew that four-year-olds would be capable of using it.
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