Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Introduction

12/15/2009

Programs designed to promote young childrens school readiness have focused primarily on language and social emotional development.  While these remain important skills for young children to acquire, there is a growing awareness that readiness for mathematics is also critical. Promoting school readiness for mathematics is particularly important for low-income and/or ethnic minority children who are at greater risk for beginning kindergarten with markedly lower math skills (Lee & Burkham, 2002).  In fact, recent research shows that childrens mathematics ability at kindergarten-entry is a better predictor of future academic success than their reading achievement (Duncan et. al., 2007).  Preschool and prekindergarten programs can buffer children against school failure (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005) and prepare young children for success in primary school mathematics (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003; Bogard & Takanishi, 2005; Goldbeck, 2001).  Considerations like these have led many states to develop early learning standards for mathematics.

In spite of the evidence that early childhood education is the most promising and cost-effective way to positively affect the development of children at-risk for later school failure (Reynolds, 2005), there has been widespread reluctance to teach mathematical concepts to young children.  This is because many mathematics educators were not convinced that young children could learn these concepts and because it was unclear how best to teach them (Perry & Dockett, 2002).  In fact, some early childhood educators continue to resist the use of any planned teaching or curricula given their long held beliefs that young children need to learn on their own in a child-centered holistic environment and that deliberate teaching is not developmentally appropriate (Golbeck, 2001).  In addition, many teachers own fear of math is an obstacle to their willingness to teach mathematics (Ginsburg, Lee, & Boyd, 2008).  The result has been that mathematics education has traditionally not figured prominently in early childhood education programs.  For example, two major early childhood programs that account for a large portion of the market, Creative Curriculum and High/Scope, have traditionally not emphasized a comprehensive mathematics curriculum.  However, both of these programs are in the process of expanding their mathematics offerings.

The historical reluctance to teach mathematics to young children stands in stark contrast to research showing that young children can understand mathematics in complex ways.  While it was once thought that young children were incapable of abstract or logical thought because they were in Piagets preoperational stage, recent research shows that young children can understand basic aspects of number and operations, geometric shapes, spatial relations, measurement, and patterns (Ginsburg, Lee, & Boyd, 2008; Perry & Dockett, 2002).  Childrens everyday mathematical skills can be cultivated and extended at this age level in ways that support a more advanced understanding of mathematical concepts (Ginsburg, Lee, & Boyd, 2008).

In response to the recent research findings demonstrating that young children are eager learners of everyday mathematics, leading mathematics and early childhood education professional organizations now stress the importance of deliberate early childhood mathematics education (National Association for the Education of Young Children and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2002).  Their position is that curricula providing organized activities designed to promote students understanding of mathematical concepts can be used in a deliberate manner by teachers, while still allowing children the opportunity to play and explore the world flexibly (Ginsburg, Lee, & Boyd, 2008; Perry & Dockett, 2002).  This approach to early mathematics education fits into prevailing views of quality early childhood education: children should play and be taught, and both should occur in a warm, and nurturing environment.

The goal of this paper is to examine the effectiveness of new research based mathematics curricula that attempt to respond to the call for organized programs of mathematics learning for young children.  Given that relatively little rigorous research on preschool mathematics programs has been conducted  whether federally-funded or not  this paper will review research that has been supported by a number of different funding streams:  federally-funded studies that were part of the PCER and ISRC initiatives; federally-funded Head Start research; studies funded through other federal programs, including the Institute for Education Science (IES) and the National Science Foundation (NSF); as well as foundation-funded research based in the U.S. and international research.  All of the studies reviewed include pre-kindergarten or preschool-aged children (e.g., children who are approximately four years old) in their samples.  These children may be attending organized programs like Head Start, or may be in other preschool or child-care center settings. In addition, all of the studies focused on improving the math skills of children from low-income families as these children are most at risk for beginning formal schooling with a poorer understanding of mathematics than their non-poor peers.

The first section of the paper focuses on mathematics-specific curricula whose development and/or evaluations have been supported by the federal government, as well as two curricula that were developed or evaluated by other funding sources.  The second section will review federally-funded research on comprehensive curricula that include a mathematics component.  In each of these sections, we will identify the funding stream and, when applicable, the research initiative supporting the research. The paper concludes with a discussion of what the research does and does not tell us at this point, and recommends directions for future research that would better illuminate the processes of teaching and learning that support mathematics learning in early childhood settings, as well as research designed to determine which underlying components of curricula and implementation are beneficial under the varying preschool and childcare settings that serve children most at risk for starting school with academic skills that lag behind those of their peers.

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