Despite research showing the crucial importance of math at a preschool level for future academic success, preschool programs face significant obstacles in implementing an effective math program, according to interviews with early childhood instructors and preschool administrators.

The greatest obstacle cited in the interviews conducted by EdSource over the past month is the lack of math content and training in how to teach it among preschool staff. Other obstacles cited included the logistics and costs of providing in-service training, the impact of the budget crisis on providing professional development, and widespread “math anxiety” among preschool staff who have often struggled with math earlier in their careers.

EdSource outlined its findings at the CSLNet Summit, which was held this week in San Diego, and was attended by over 300 educators and others working to promote greater involvement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula and careers. One highlight of the conference was the designation of former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now 65, as California’s “After School STEM ambassador” by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

In 2007, Greg Duncan, an economist now in the UC Irvine School of Education, shook the world of early childhood education when he and fellow researchers published a paper showing that early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and measurement, were “the most powerful predictors of later learning,” even more than reading and writing. The findings challenged what has been the central focus of early learning in the U.S. for decades: reading and literacy.

However, California has instituted a multi-layered set of frameworks, standards, and assessment tools that all deal with preschool math. The most important are the California Preschool Learning Foundations, which were published in 2008 and outline the “foundational skills” and knowledge that children between four and five are expected to acquire before they enter kindergarten, including math concepts like numbers, measurement, classification, and recognizing patterns.

Children are not expected to be little Einsteins, but to master basic math concepts by the time they reach kindergarten, including, for example, being able to:

- count to 20 “with increasing accuracy” by the time they reach kindergarten;
- recognize the names of some written numerals;
- count the number in a collection of up to four objects;
- understand that adding one or taking away one changes the number in a small group of objects by exactly one.

(For a comparison of what is expected of children in preschool and kindergarten, under current standards and under the new Common Core, see this comparison by the Irvine Unified School District.)

But despite the existence of the Foundations and other tools such as the Desired Results Development Profiles, the paucity of preschool teacher preparation in math gets in the way of fully integrating math into the preschool curriculum.

Susan Wood, director of the California Institute of Technology’s Children’s Center in Pasadena, which has a math and science focus, described math preparation in the permitting process as “terrible” and “non-existent.” Asked how much emphasis her college places on math instruction, Janice Townsend, an instructor on the Child Development faculty at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, answered, “Probably not enough.”

Erin Freschi, program services administrator for First 5 Alameda, said that typically the courses that students in Early Childhood Education community college programs take will include content on teaching math, but the amount varies depending on the instructor and is usually very limited.

In California, all preschool teachers and associate teachers are required obtain a “Child Development Permit” (rather than a teaching credential as required for K-12 teachers). To receive their permits, teachers must take 16 units in academic courses, including one each in English, math or science, social sciences, and humanities or fine arts. But they can bypass math by taking a science class instead.

Once they have completed their academic studies, they must then enroll in an early childhood education program to take 24 units, or eight courses, in early childhood education and child development. Typically math does not figure prominently in these courses.

As a result, unless students choose to take math as part of their math and science “general education” requirement, they can get their teaching permits without having to take even one math course.

Ada Hand, president of the California Kindergarten Association, noted that preschool staff need to know less about formal math instruction, but more about how to promote active, hands-on learning, providing objects to manipulate, along with games, blocks, and puzzles, enabling children to have a rich dialog with peers and adults.

Rather, the goal for teachers is to integrate basic math concepts into everyday activities, such as counting the number of steps from the classroom to the playground, or looking at a spider during recess and counting the number of legs it has. As Veronica Ufoegbune, director of the Woodstock Child Development Centers in Alameda, said, “People forget that math is a daily experience; it is part of everything you do.”

For teachers who have already obtained their permit, there is left the crucial task of providing follow-up training and professional development opportunities. Peggy Nguyen, Early Childhood Coordinator in the Newport-Mesa School District, said such training has been her program’s “biggest struggle.”

Elaine Coggins, director of Early Childhood Education in the Anaheim City School District, which serves some 1200 children in 17 different sites, noted that there is a plethora of preschool math-focused curriculum materials. The bigger challenge, she said, “is really teaching teachers how to use the materials.”

One other challenge is ensuring that California’s Preschool Learning Foundations are aligned with the K-3 Common Core state standards, adopted by California and 45 other states and due for implementation in 2014-15, without overwhelming teachers and preschool administrators already struggling to stay on top of the multiple layers of state standards and assessments.

But here is some good news: An initial analysis by the California Department of Education indicates that at least in this regard California is ahead of many other states, and that its preschool and Common Core standards are fairly closely aligned.

The analysis found that “even though the preschool foundations and the Common Core standards are organized somewhat differently, overall, both cover the same areas in mathematics.”

*Next month, EdSource will publish a more in-depth report on the policy and practical challenges of implementing an effective math curriculum at a preschool level. *