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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Commentary: Good math skills begin at home |

Photo: Melissa E. Libertus
Photo: Roberta 
Melissa E. Libertus, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychology Research Scientist, Learning Research & Development Center and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair and Professor of Education in the School of Education at the University of Delaware argues, Educators and parents alike are alarmed over the persistent gaps between 15-year-olds in the United States and their international peers on science and math outcomes.


According to the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released on Dec. 6, American adolescents rank a paltry 31st out of the 35 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in math, and math scores have significantly declined since the last PISA in 2012.

To combat this trend, forces have mobilized around STEM education - stressing the experiences needed to build a foundation for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Fostering strong STEM education will safeguard our place in the world and ensure our children a place in tomorrow's workforce.

Yet our lagging international PISA scores highlight how we continue to miss an essential element in preparing our students for the future: Evidence suggests that the road to strong STEM education starts not in elementary or middle school, but at home and in preschool with very young children.

Some parents and teachers talk about numbers and math frequently so that their children are hearing words such as two, twelve, more, less, count, and add repeatedly in various contexts. Other parents and teachers, however, rarely use number and math words or engage children in meaningful math-learning activities.

Failing to talk to our kids about math and introducing them to mathematical ideas and activities is what we call "The Great Shortchange" because it stunts children's math growth and their future success. This is precisely where we need to act: We must bring math into our homes and preschools.

To be specific, research indicates that some parents of toddlers use an average of more than 30 number words every hour (e.g., "Where are the three girls in the picture?"). Other parents, however, use only one number word every two hours, on average. This creates close to a 6,000 percent difference in math input at home. The results are even more worrisome when we look at preschool teachers. Some preschool teachers use more than 100 math words per hour, but others use only one - almost a 10,000 percent difference.

Given these differences in children's experience, it is no surprise that children who are exposed to more activities and talk related to math acquire new math concepts faster and enter kindergarten better prepared for learning math. Although some children can barely count to 10, others are already doing basic arithmetic.

Crucially, math abilities at the start of school are among the strongest predictors of later math achievement. Researchers in early mathematics, among them Douglas Clements from the University of Denver, Herbert Ginsburg from Teachers College at Columbia University, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from Temple University, Nancy Jordan from the University of Delaware, Susan C. Levine from the University of Chicago, and Robert S. Siegler from Carnegie Mellon University, share our concern and contribute to the inquiry that speaks to these issues.

So what can we do?