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. *

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ashok3 years ago3 years agoJust to add to my last comment from my own personal experience, I began learning numbers at five and then went on to complete Ph.D. in engineering at UBC Canada excelling in mathematical skills and since then have published several well cited scientific articles.

ashok3 years ago3 years agoMy own understanding on the issue is that children should not be rushed with much arithmetic before the age of five and very gradually after that. Just the numbers one, two and three are enough for a child up to four and numbers up to twelve for those between four and five with the most rudimentary idea of addition and subtraction. I have incorporated these ideas in a set of two little books on preschool … Read More

My own understanding on the issue is that children should not be rushed with much arithmetic before the age of five and very gradually after that. Just the numbers one, two and three are enough for a child up to four and numbers up to twelve for those between four and five with the most rudimentary idea of addition and subtraction. I have incorporated these ideas in a set of two little books on preschool arithmetic described at the link with this comment. The learning of numbers can be reinforced with colorful illustrations and nursery rhymes.

Day care in Yorba Linda4 years ago4 years agoTeaching Mathematics as a subject to young kids can be a bit tricky. But to incorporate activities related to Maths like counting the number of steps or plates etc. can definitely help the kids understand Maths better.

CarolineSF4 years ago4 years agoReal parents and real teachers say: Let kids play! And yes: "... most parents would rather have a gentle, happy, nurturing preschool teacher who didnt happen to take a post-secondary math course, than a cold, mean, unhappy preschool teacher who happened to also be a trigonometry professor ..." (Also, I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that a preschooler who can do algebra is almost definitely on the autism spectrum. That's not something to … Read More

Real parents and real teachers say: Let kids play!

And yes:

“… most parents would rather have a gentle, happy, nurturing preschool teacher who didnt happen to take a post-secondary math course, than a cold, mean, unhappy preschool teacher who happened to also be a trigonometry professor …”

(Also, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that a preschooler who can do algebra is almost definitely on the autism spectrum. That’s not something to disparage — it might well be viewed as something to honor and celebrate — but to be aware of.)

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Paul Muench4 years ago4 years agoI know, this title made me do a double take.

el4 years ago4 years agoA significant hole that might be even bigger than preschool teachers not having college level math classes are the new rules that require districts to charge preschool families money down to very low income levels and the fact that there aren't enough slots for state preschool in general. When the kids get to kindergarten and half haven't been enrolled in preschool, it shows. And it seems very damaging to the school-parent relationship for the school … Read More

A significant hole that might be even bigger than preschool teachers not having college level math classes are the new rules that require districts to charge preschool families money down to very low income levels and the fact that there aren’t enough slots for state preschool in general. When the kids get to kindergarten and half haven’t been enrolled in preschool, it shows. And it seems very damaging to the school-parent relationship for the school to have to call up a low income family and say that the child can’t keep coming until they pay up.

My daughter’s gymnastics teacher did a wonderful job of integrating counting and simple math exercises in her gymnastics program. The last section of every lesson was a ‘course’ through a gymnastics routine where the kids would get to stations that had a number to tell them how many times to hop, or bounce a ball, or do some other activity. They counted their steps through cone mazes, etc. I thought integrating this numeracy with physical activity was extremely effective.

navigio4 years ago4 years agoI would question whether the needs for a 'teacher' at pre-school level are the same as at the k-12 level. While I did know a 3 year old who could do algebra, for the vast majority of preschoolers, math means learning to count (and sometimes simple arithmetic). I assume any preschool teacher must have graduated from high school, which for me implies those simple math abilities (call me naive :-) ). I also think most parents … Read More

I would question whether the needs for a ‘teacher’ at pre-school level are the same as at the k-12 level. While I did know a 3 year old who could do algebra, for the vast majority of preschoolers, math means learning to count (and sometimes simple arithmetic). I assume any preschool teacher must have graduated from high school, which for me implies those simple math abilities (call me naive 🙂 ).

I also think most parents would rather have a gentle, happy, nurturing preschool teacher who didnt happen to take a post-secondary math course, than a cold, mean, unhappy preschool teacher who happened to also be a trigonometry professor, given the choice. 🙂

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MAG4 years ago4 years agoThere is much more to preschool math than learning to count. And more brain develop,ent happens in the first five years of a childs life than in any other period so what preschool teachers are doing and how they are prepared is extremely important. The choices this commenter has posed are extremely reductionist and ignore the real issues. Preschool teachers are mostly underpaid and under appreciated and rarely receive paid time to pursue crucial professional … Read More

There is much more to preschool math than learning to count. And more brain develop,ent happens in the first five years of a childs life than in any other period so what preschool teachers are doing and how they are prepared is extremely important. The choices this commenter has posed are extremely reductionist and ignore the real issues. Preschool teachers are mostly underpaid and under appreciated and rarely receive paid time to pursue crucial professional development to keep them current in the field.

navigio4 years ago4 years agoI dont disagree with that criticism. My point was that I don't believe a post-secondary class in math for a preschool teacher is the determining factor for whether that teacher can introduce those concepts in their classroom. As far as I know, math classes are required to graduate from high school, so I am not clear how a preschool teacher (who is required to have a high school diploma) could have gotten their credential 'without … Read More

I dont disagree with that criticism. My point was that I don’t believe a post-secondary class in math for a preschool teacher is the determining factor for whether that teacher can introduce those concepts in their classroom. As far as I know, math classes are required to graduate from high school, so I am not clear how a preschool teacher (who is required to have a high school diploma) could have gotten their credential ‘without having to take even one math course’.

Regardless, I would still disagree that a standard math course is what prepares a preschool teacher for introducing the early concepts associated with a math curriculum. In fact, probably just the opposite. These fundamentals are quite nuanced and introduction of those concepts to children under 4 is not something you can do in a ‘standard classroom’ format like the one that is used at the secondary or post-secondary level. I might even go so far as to point out that since preschool math ‘curriculum’ generally implies such a broad swath of concepts (including statistics, probability, geometry, measurement, and even data analysis), that if the belief is only those actual courses at a post-secondary level can prepare preschool teachers for what they do with preschool-aged children, that we’d better start assuming they have college degrees. But in reality, what we probably need is a dedicated preschool match curriculum course (and to my point, not standard post-secondary math classes. imho of course).

And I could not agree more with your last sentence.