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Let’s Count: Boosting Math in PK-3

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s (NMAP) new report on math instruction in America has drawn a lot of press attention. Of the dozens of recommendations outlined in the report one thing is abundantly clear: We need to focus more on building core math skills in the early grades PK-3.

We all know that American high school students are falling behind in math. American 15 year olds rank 25th in math among their peers in the 30 most industrialized nations, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). But another international study, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), finds that the international math gap starts even earlier: Only 7 percent of U.S. fourth graders achieved the “advanced” level on TIMSS, compared to 38 percent in Singapore.

Improving PK-3 math instruction is critical to improving our standing in math. We all know that the early years lay an essential foundation of literacy skills that students must acquire to support later learning. But it’s also true that children need to master foundational math skills in the early grades in order to learn more complex math content—in particular, algebra—in middle and high school. Research shows that children who are exposed to a math-rich environment prior to entering school (both at home and in a pre-k classroom) are less likely to struggle with math in later grades. A 2006 study published in Developmental Psychology found that even trivial math talk to pre-schoolers (“you two go get your coats”, “put away four toys”) can boost a child's math skills.

To that end, the NMAP report makes four recommendations for PK-3 math instruction:

  • Focus curriculum around the goal of ensuring proficiency in whole number operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) by Grade 4, in order to put students on track to learn algebra by Grade 8.
  • Ensure that students come to school with a basic understanding of numbers and counting. Familiarity with counting and numbers lays a foundation for children to acquire additional math skills and knowledge. Achieving this requires better pre-school and pre-k math instruction, as well as more research on quality early childhood math instruction.
  • Equip pre-k and early elementary teachers with the skills and knowledge to to recognize their students’ math capabilities and teach them core concepts and content.
  • Increase use of “math specialists” at the elementary level who have specialized math teaching knowledge and can focus on coordinating math curricula across grade levels.

The panel’s recommendations affirm and the importance of aligned curriculum in grades PK-3. Providing aligned math curricula and instruction beginning in pre-k and continuing through the early elementary years is the best way to ensure that young students build essential math skills at an even, graduated pace that leads to proficiency in whole number operations by fourth grade. Aligning PK-3 math curricula can also help reduce and weed out repetition from grade to grade, which the report identified as one factor slowing children’s acquisition of math skills.

The panel also highlighted an urgent need to improve the math skills and knowledge of PK-3 teachers. Too many early educators are unaware of young children’s cognitive capacity to understand mathematical concepts, or are themselves uncomfortable with and poorly trained in math. We need more research on both how to better prepare elementary educators in math, as well as the instructional methods that work best for teaching early math.

The NMAP report is the highest-profile recommendation in recent years to cement the link between quality math instruction in the early grades and math literacy in high school and beyond. It reminds us all that when it comes to boosting student success, Early Ed counts.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Inkyhack, used under a Creative Commons License.