Let’s face it: Math and science are about more than counting and recognizing shapes, even for 3- and 4-year-olds! The pre-K crowd is curious about exploring everyday math and science and comes to preschool armed with basic concepts. Young children create patterns with different colored materials, build towers with blocks and note that one tower is taller than the other. They question where puppies come from, observe that people have different color eyes and come up with explanations for the difference. These early explorations and engagement in associated thinking processes serve as foundations for learning as children continue toward more formal understandings.
Yet opportunities for children to learn math are often limited to memorizing the number words in sequence up to 20 and counting objects. Some teachers also encourage children to identify patterns or basic shapes in the environment, such as squares and circles. Similarly, opportunities to explore science concepts are provided occasionally but are rarely available on a daily basis or integrated into daily activities.
Evidence continues to mount, however, that this is not enough to help children learn the skills that will serve them best in elementary school and beyond. Most recently, it comes by way of the new report from the National Assessment of Education Progress showing that the nation’s fourth grade math scores have remained essentially unchanged since 2007.
This reinforces the need for policymakers to heed what NIEER recommends in its March 2009 brief Mathematics and Science in Preschool: Policies and Practice and to spend quality time becoming familiar with the National Research Council’s comprehensive July 2009 report Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity.
The NRC report points to the emphasis placed on literacy in recent years and research showing that pre-K teachers are less comfortable teaching math and science as factors contributing to the lag in support for math. Whatever the case, there is a growing sense that American children should be better grounded in these critical domains. One reason is the poor performance American high school students perennially turn in on math and science tests relative to their peers in most developed countries. Another is research pointing to the larger role played by early math skills in later school success than previously thought.
An analysis of six long-term studies by Northwestern University’s Greg Duncan and colleagues found early math knowledge to be the most powerful predictor of later learning. In fact, early math was a more powerful predictor of later reading achievement than early reading was of later math achievement.
While these findings continue to be debated, few argue that concentrating more on math and science in pre-K isn’t needed. It’s one thing, however, to be aware that math and science should rate a higher priority and quite another to effectively capitalize on children’s innate interest in these areas of learning with effective teaching strategies and teacher support.
Preschool presents an ideal opportunity not only to expand children’s education in math and science but also to engage them in ways that foster a lifelong enjoyment of these areas of learning. Kids are primed to learn math before they arrive in pre-K. Research from Rochel Gelman at Rutgers University and many others shows that young children are able to develop number knowledge even before they know the words (one, two, three) that correspond with the numbers. Research demonstrates that children spend much of their day engaged in activities that support mathematical thinking (Seo & Ginsburg, 2004). Views that young children are “empty vessels” when it comes to early math and science are outdated and no longer supported by research.
Kimberly Brenneman, assistant research professor at NIEER and co-author of NIEER’s math and science policy brief, says “Given the opportunity, preschoolers will use math and science-relevant thinking to solve problems even though they may not be aware they are doing so.” She says high-quality pre-K classrooms support math and science by providing experiences that encourage numerical reasoning and lead to investigations of objects by considering their sizes, quantities, measurements, spatial relationships, and various other aspects. Children engage in explorations of science ideas and content, and skilled teachers interact with them in intentional ways to help them extend their knowledge and reasoning.
The NRC report also underscores the importance of intentional teaching where a teacher adapts instruction to different learning contexts that include group instruction and child-initiated play. They say too many pre-K classrooms limit math instruction to rote number knowledge and counting, and very little time is spent even on that poor instruction. Studies have shown anywhere from 8 to15 percent of the instructional day is spent on math or science (Layzer et al., 1993; Early et al., 2005), which is much less than the time spent teaching language and reading.
NIEER research project coordinator Judi Stevenson-Boyd, also a co-author of NIEER’s math and science brief, says much remains to be done to strengthen teacher preparation programs before this will be remedied. Currently, even four-year degree programs in early childhood education rarely include coursework in early childhood math or science, and once teachers are in the classroom, access to professional development that supports quality instruction in these domains is often limited (Ginsburg, Lee &, Boyd, 2008). “What’s needed most urgently in this field is more comprehensive instruction and support for both pre-service teachers and those already in the classroom,” she says.
Stevenson-Boyd and others at NIEER are working on a professional development initiative aimed at increasing teacher knowledge of and appreciation for preschool math and science, improving learning environments and teaching practices, and increasing confidence with teaching math and science. Key components of the effort will be describing trajectories of development, providing examples of how children reason in these domains, and allowing teachers to analyze and discuss video of children’s thinking and high-quality teacher-child interactions.
NIEER has also designed the Preschool Rating Instrument for Science and Mathematics (PRISM), a classroom observation tool that measures the quality of math and science materials and teaching interactions. The PRISM is used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a program and to indicate areas for improvement. A related self-assessment is designed to help educators assess and improve their own teaching practices by increasing their focus on the specific ways their students reason about mathematics and science.
The question is no longer whether children should be taught math and science in preschool. Research has established mathematics and science as essential components of a comprehensive, high-quality early education program. Evidence is accruing that readiness in mathematics, especially, is critical for later positive learning outcomes. This means we can no longer accept mediocre professional training and preparation and lackluster classroom and teaching supports for educators of young children. Teachers need to be prepared by their professional training to better understand children’s development and competence and to learn best methods for encouraging and extending children’s learning. If we want to get good news from future NAEP reports, one place to start is the preschool classroom.