New Calculation: Math in Preschool
Chicago Teachers Add Principles of Arithmetic to Early-Childhood Education, Laying Base for Higher-Level Skills Later On
CHICAGO—Scores of preschool and kindergarten teachers across the city are embedding math concepts into daily classroom activities, in a promising new program that gives students a foundation for more complex math and logical-thinking skills in later grades.
The Early Mathematics Education Project at Erikson Institute, a nonprofit graduate school in child development, has already trained about 300 Chicago preschool and kindergarten teachers at 150 schools, funded by grants from local foundations and Chicago Public Schools.
Chicago-based Erikson recently got a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to offer the training to 111 teachers from preschool to third grade at eight more Chicago schools and to study the program's effectiveness.
At Lovett Elementary School, where the preschool teacher adopted the new methods, math instruction is omnipresent, if not always apparent. It's there where 4-year-old Jasmine Wilson arranges four Popsicle sticks into a zigzag pattern under the number "4." It shows up when Cedric Carter mimics the teacher's syncopated clapping pattern. And it appears when students join a growing line of characters from "The Gingerbread Man" to chase Anasia Simmons around the room.
The children don't realize it, but they are learning fundamental math concepts such as connecting numerals to quantity, building patterns, and the idea that adding something, or someone, creates a larger number.
Evidence is mounting about the importance of teaching math in preschool and kindergarten. Research has shown that if children don't have good instruction and effective teachers in early grades, they are more likely to struggle later when they face more complicated concepts. This is especially true for low-income children, who often arrive at school behind academically.
U.S. elementary-school children have shown slow but steady progress on national math exams. However U.S. 15-year-olds were 25th among 34 developed countries on a 2009 international math exam, a ranking that has remained stagnant since 2000, when the exam was first given.
At Chicago's Lovett Elementary, where 93% of students come from low-income families, preschool teacher Jennifer Flynn said that when she began teaching eight years ago, she taught math on a very "surface level," making sure students knew such things as counting to 100 and creating patterns.
"Now I work to make them mathematical thinkers and I want them to be able to tell me 'why' and 'how' they know things," said Ms. Flynn, who completed the Erikson math program two years ago. "My students are far more engaged and are more successful in kindergarten."
A study Erikson conducted found that students of teachers enrolled in its math program showed, on average, three to five months additional progress in math, compared with students whose teachers were on the waiting list to get into the program. Children who started the school year far behind in math made the most progress.
Jie-Qi Chen, an Erikson professor who helped develop the project, said proper math instruction helps students develop reasoning and logical thinking skills—cognitive building blocks that prepare them to learn any subject. But she said early math gains in preschool can "wash out" if teachers in elementary grades don't know how to teach it. And unlike reading, she said, which requires little explicit instruction after a certain level, "math cannot be fully grasped without assistance from a well-trained teacher."
A 2007 study by Erikson Institute showed that 21% of Chicago preschool and kindergarten teachers taught math on any given day, while 96% taught language arts.
Early-education teachers rarely receive more than one semester in math instruction in college. "A lot of them are math phobic," said Jeanine Brownell, assistant director of programming for Early Mathematics.
With the $5 million, five-year grant, Erikson's new math project will put teachers in the eight schools through a weeklong summer training program. The teachers will also get six training sessions during the year and meet with coaches who will observe them in the classroom and provide feedback. Erikson officials will work with the schools to help build a culture of strong math instruction.
Jennifer McCray, project director of Early Mathematics, said the program focuses on how to teach mathematical thinking, rather than basic math procedures. Instead of learning, for example, to recognize the numeral 4 and that it comes between 3 and 5, Erikson wants students to understand that "4" represents a quantity and has meaning. After Jasmine put the four Popsicle sticks into a Z pattern, Ms. Flynn prompted her to rearrange them into another shape, proving that no matter how the stick were arranged, they still represent the quantity "4."
Stephen Brown, a kindergarten teacher at Gale Math and Science Academy on Chicago's Far North Side who is currently enrolled in the Erikson math program, said he has learned to infuse math in virtually every lesson. "They've helped me understand how a 5-year-old brain thinks and helped me connect my teaching to what numbers mean in their world," he said.
In Ms. Flynn's class at Lovett, math lessons are part of storytime, puzzle time, just about any time of the day. Four-year-old Anaisa wasn't sure what "The Gingerbread Man" lesson was aimed to teach, but when asked if it was math, she scrunched her eyebrows together and said, "No, it was fun."