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Ask a Scientist: What's the Best Type of Math to Teach in Kindergarten?

mimi-engel.jpgThe math children learn in kindergarten can set the stage for later success in school. Mimi Engel, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, was on the team that first showed that conclusively. Today, Engel is taking that research to the next logical place and asking: If math is so important, does it matter exactly what kind of math is taught? 

The answer is "yes." Engel's research found that children who learn things like simple addition and subtraction do better in math later than children who learn things like counting to 10. Many children, Engel points out, can already count to 10 when they reach kindergarten, which eliminates the need to teach it. Most kindergartners, she posits, are developmentally ready to get beyond counting and dive into the next level of mathematics learning.

"We shouldn't underestimate their capacity to learn mathematics content," Engle said. "We shouldn't assume that a kindergartener isn't ready to learn some basic addition and subtraction or assume that that might not be an exciting and intriguing task for those children."

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, appears below.

Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in researching early math.

My interest in early math actually came from work I was involved about a decade ago [with Greg Duncan of the University of California, Irvine, and others], that showed that the correlation between math learning across the kindergarten year and students' later school-related outcomes was very high. So early math is very predictive of not just how you do in math later on in schooling, but how you do in reading and other important outcomes. 

Tell me more about your most recent work looking at what kids actually learn in kindergarten math.

The National Center for Education Statistics compiles these wonderful longitudinal datasets that are available for researchers, for policymakers, for people in general to use to answer questions about education. Building on this interest that I and my coauthors had developed in early math, we used those data about kids who were in kindergarten in 1998-99—that school year—to look at what mathematics content children are exposed to in kindergarten, and what their across-kindergarten learning gains were. 

What we saw is kids were getting a lot of exposure to very basic mathematics content that evidence suggested in the very same dataset that they already knew when they started kindergarten.

They were getting less exposure to advanced content, and what we mean by that for kindergarten is content such single-digit addition and subtraction. And we show that time teachers report spending on the very basic content such as numbers one through 10 or basic shapes is negatively associated with learning in kindergarten, whereas time on more advanced content is positively associated with learning across kindergarten. 

This most recent publication replicates the original study and shows that this pattern is again true using data from kids who were more recently in kindergarten, in 2010-11. Teachers are reporting that they're spending some more time on more advanced math content [than they were in 1998-99]. But the majority of time is still spent on the more basic mathematic content. And we can again show that time on basic content is associated with less learning in mathematics in kindergarten.

So, if I'm looking at the data correctly, this shift to spending more time on advanced content happened before Common Core State Standards showed up, right? 

That is right. Initially, we set out in the hope of being able to really say something about common core, but found two things, right? What you just alluded to, that these data really pre-date more extensive implementation of common core, and the questions that teachers are asked [in the National Education Statistics surveys] are not that well-aligned with the common core content organization.

A lot of people, especially folks who have been involved in kindergarten education for a long time, are worried that this uptick in "advanced content" that was happening before common core and is happening again with common core is a bad thing for children. Do your findings have any bearing on that concern?

They do. I'm very interested in that question ,and my question is an empirical [one]. I want to approach that question without having a prior notion of whether this is good for kids or this is bad for kids. And I want to try and see what the data tells us.

So here's what I think the findings that we have can say with regard to the kindergarten debate. This paper is not about time on academics. This is not a paper that's saying kids should spend their whole day in kindergarten sitting at their desks filling out worksheets, doing academics. The simple finding here is: Given that kids do spend time on mathematics and reading and other academic content in kindergarten, if you take that [academic] time and use it to build skills that kids have not already mastered when they start kindergarten, that seems to help them learn more mathematics. 

The paper isn't saying kindergartn should be all work and no play. I and some coauthors wrote a commentary for EdWeek a few years ago arguing that these two issues need not be at odds. In other words, why can't we make kindergarten both academically engaging and challenging and fun? I know I'm happiest when I am both challenged and enjoying myself.

What we show is that when teachers report more days per month devoted to the more advanced topics, which in this case are things like basic addition and subtraction or place value and currency, kids appear to be learning more, gaining more in kindergarten. When teachers report spending more time on [basic topics], we see a negative association with cross-kindergarten learning gains in math. 

What takeaway would you offer for parents and teachers of young children based on what you found?

Based on what we found and on a larger body of evidence and theory that comes from specialists on early learning, and now I'm talking about the National Mathematics or Mathematics Advisory Panel that was put together in the 2000s and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, NAEYC, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, we really know that kids under 6 are prepared to learn a wide range of mathematics content. 

Evidence suggests that mathematics is underemphasized in the earliest years of schooling. A lot of preschool curricula have virtually no math, and some studies show that almost no time is spent on mathematics in a typical preschool classroom.

What we're finding is some time is spent on math in kindergarten, but not the math kids will get the most out of. We shouldn't underestimate their capacity to learn mathematics content. We shouldn't assume that a kindergartener isn't ready to learn some basic addition and subtraction or assume that that might not be an exciting and intriguing task for those children.

Photo: Mimi Engel

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