There's a real lack of math learning in pre-K. In one study, in fact, just 58 seconds out of a full preschool day was spent on math activities. (Kaylhew/Flikr Creative Commons)
There’s a real lack of math learning in pre-K. In one study, in fact, just 58 seconds out of a full preschool day was spent on math activities. (Kaylhew/Flikr Creative Commons)

By Anya Kamenetz, NPR

Little children are big news this week, as the White House holds a summit on early childhood education December 10. The President wants every four year old to go to preschool, but the new Congress is unlikely to foot that bill.

Since last year, more than 30 states have expanded access to preschool. But there’s still a lack of evidence about exactly what kinds of interventions are most effective in those crucial early years.

In New York City, an ambitious, $25 million dollar study is collecting evidence on the best way to raise outcomes for kids in poverty. Their hunch is that it may begin with math.

Time That Counts

“One! Two! Three! Four! Five!”

Gayle Conigliaro’s preschool class are jumping as they count, to get the feeling of the numbers into their bodies–a concept called “embodied cognition.”

P.S. 43 is located in Far Rockaway, Queens, just steps from the ocean. The area is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. But now it’s been chosen as one of 69 high-poverty sites around New York City for a research study to test whether stronger math teaching can make all the difference for young kids. The study is funded by the Robin Hood Foundation, which is dedicated to ending poverty in New York. Pamela Morris, with research group MDRC, is lead investigator.

“MDRC and the Robin Hood Foundation developed a partnership really with a broad goal,” she says, “Which is, they want to change the trajectories of low income children. And to do so by focusing on preschool.”

There’s plenty of evidence on the long-term importance of preschool. But why math? Morris says that a 2013 study by Greg Duncan, at the University of California, Irvine, showed that math knowledge at the beginning of elementary school was the single most powerful predictor determining whether a student would graduate from high school and attend college. “We think math might be sort of a lever to improve outcomes for kids longer term,” Morris says.

But there’s a real lack of math learning in pre-K. In one study, in fact, just 58 seconds out of a five-hour preschool day was spent on math activities. Part of the problem, says Doug Clements, at the University of Denver, is that “Most teachers, of course, have been through our United States mathematics education, so they tend to think of math as just skills. They tend to think of it as a quiet activity.”

Clements is the creator of Building Blocks, the math curriculum being tested in this new study. Building Blocks is designed to be just the opposite: engaging, exciting, and loud. “We want kids running around the classroom and bumping into mathematics at every turn.”

At P.S. 43, math games, toys, and activities are woven through the entire day. At transition time, the teacher asks the students to line up and touches their heads with the “counting wand.” At circle time, fittingly, the children talk about shapes. Just a few months into the school year, they observe correctly that a geometric shape must be a “closed figure” and that a square is “a special rectangle.”

“How do you know it’s a circle?” asks the teacher. “Because it goes round and round,” says one girl with a bear barrette in her hair.

When Ms. Conigliaro asks, “how do you know,” she’s asking the kids to think about their own thinking. That’s a skill called metacognition. Explaining your reasoning out loud also develops verbal ability.

At choice time, besides the play-dough and pattern blocks, there are computer games matched to Building Blocks that keep track of each student’s progress. And two children play a game called Number Match (“Is three more than two? How do you know?”) as a teacher watches. The teacher is keeping notes of each child’s level of understanding. The idea of developmental paths, or “trajectories of understanding,” is a core concept in Building Blocks.

“There are reliable levels of thinking through which kids pass on their way to achieving a certain understanding in mathematics,” Clements says. For example, children go from simply chanting “onetwothreefourfive,” to separating out each number word, to associating a number word with a given amount, to knowing that when you stop counting, the last number tells you “how many.”

Also in the classroom is a coach from Bank Street College of Education, who comes every other week to help the teacher put Building Blocks into practice. This is important to the study design. The coaches ensure that the curriculum is being implemented. Pamela Morris says, “Often we ask teachers what curriculum they’re delivering and we find it’s a book on their bookshelf collecting dust.”

The study will follow up with these students and a control group all the way through the third grade. They’ll be directly assessing their math and reading abilities and looking at their grades and test scores later on. Morris is curious whether working on math will enhance the children’s ability to self-regulate, inhibit impulses, pay attention appropriately and hold important concepts in working memory. This is a group of skills known as executive functioning. For example, if the teacher says “clap and count to five,” will you be able to stop clapping before you get to six?

But Conigliaro, a 24-year veteran teacher, is already convinced of the value of this curriculum.

“I just feel like the aha moment. This is what teaching should be. Where’s the literacy program?” she says. “We would just like it to be a research based program so we can give our kids the best.” She says the kids’ progress amazes her every day.

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  • But there is a difference between natural aptitude and forced learning. As far as I can tell it is the kids that naturally excel at math that are good at school (read good at taking tests).Other children have natural talents and by forcing math on them is no guarentee that I have found.

    • Alexis

      In this example though, they are not “forcing” math on students, per se; rather, they are integrating math into the curriculum not only in a larger scale, but also in a more interactive and engaging way. This is kind of along the same lines as with the literacy program that the Free Library of Philadelphia has, where they integrate literacy skills into activities that seem more appealing to students.

      Why would you say that students who have natural talents are “good at school”? I’m not understanding the link of talent being the prerequisite for being good at school….

      • First of all we are talking about compulsory education here so yes, kids MUST take math, and pass the tests. And secondly, its a well known fact that some kids have a natural talent with tests. Its all about cultural influences and also brain physiology.

    • pdxmom

      everyone can learn math — certainly thru algebra and they are only talking about preK…so yeah, everyone has the aptitude for it.

      The problem is — people are taught as you seem to have been…there are some people who are good at math and some who are not. This is *not* true. Not everyone is getting a PhD in math, but not everyone is getting one in English either. So…yes, everyone can and DOES do math. I mean — really – most people can add two prices, or figure out a tip, or any number of math things people do in a day. It’s just not necessarily ‘book learning’ so it’s not viewed as math.

      • So we are all equal in our abilities? No significant difference? That’s an old myth.

  • Veteran teacher

    In this article, it is the expression of the reasoning for their response that is important. The how do you know, not just the right answer. Yes, it is a circle, but why do you know it is a circle? This type of thinking goes far beyond math. It helps with thinking through reading too. It also builds self confidence in being able to support your response, and it helps those who may not understand. It also helps reluctant learners gain confidence in their thinking. Math can be engaging for young children when it is taught not just through skill and drill.

  • I think you can’t force anyone to learn math with out his own interest. So, let give them the opportunity to choose the exact field in which they really interested.

  • Yes, Math is the power of success, If you able to do math then you can establish a great equation for life. So, math is the power to success. I also believe on the other fact that everyone can’t able to do math, god make a specific path for everyone, everyone should follow the path.

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