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New initiative aims to enhance math from preschool through third grade

November 26, 2012
By Mandy Erickson
Deborah Stipek
Deborah Stipek
Susa O'Hara
Susan O'Hara
Stanford and UCLA researchers begin developing a model to expand the teaching of mathematical concepts to young children.

Math turns out to be more important for young children than previously thought. Happily, math education experts know how to teach young children mathematical concepts. They just need to get the word out.

To that end, leading educational experts gathered at Stanford University School of Education on Nov. 18-19 to create a model for instructing the teachers of young children and disseminating that model to California’s elementary schools and preschools. The meeting was a first step in an initiative supported by an $850,000 grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching and UCLA’s Center X.

Recent longitudinal studies have found that children who enter kindergarten with strong math skills do better later on in school. Not only do they perform at a higher level in math, but their literacy skills are also superior, and they may have a greater chance of graduating from high school. Yet instructors of young children typically focus primarily on reading. One study showed that preschool teachers spent only 3 percent of the school day teaching math, compared with 11 percent of the day on reading.

“Math doesn’t get anywhere near the attention that literacy does,” said Stanford School of Education professor Deborah Stipek, who will act as liaison with the foundation and oversee evaluation of the research effort. She noted that the state’s training programs for preschool teachers do not require any courses in math education, and elementary teachers are required to take only one course.

The researchers in the new project will prepare cohorts of California teachers to serve as instructional leaders and coaches in their schools and districts. They will also introduce a new model for math instruction to faculty at California universities and community colleges that train preschool and elementary school teachers.

“This grant allows us to develop and evaluate effective strategies to support teachers,” said Stanford School of Education associate professor Susan O’Hara, who will be overseeing the program for Stanford. “We know that teachers can improve their teaching if they are given opportunities to develop and practice their skills.” Megan Franke, chair of UCLA’s education department, will lead the project at UCLA.

The Stanford-UCLA project is unusual in that it is serving both teachers of preschool students and teachers of the early elementary years — kindergarten through third grade. The initiative is designed to promote continuity in math instruction from preschool to grade 3. The preschool teachers who attend the workshops will come from programs connected with elementary schools. “We’re hoping to promote greater continuity, and part of that is having pre-K and elementary grade teachers learn together,” Stipek said.

The initiative is particularly timely given California’s adoption of the Common Core standards, which are expected to be in place in the state by 2015. These standards, which are being adopted by the vast majority of states, establish higher expectations for students’ mastery of core subjects than most existing state standards do. They also place a greater emphasis on reasoning and problem solving skills than the existing standards.

“We believe that children’s early math learning lays the foundation for later learning, and that teachers, clearly, play a vital role,” said Liz Simons, president of the Heising-Simons Foundation. “This initiative aims to promote a shift in our educational system’s approach to early math, and we hope that it will give teachers the tools they need to help California’s children excel in math, and build reasoning skills and more that will help them throughout their school years.”

Presently, when preschool and early education teachers do teach math, they often emphasize counting, which is useful but a very small part of the math-related skills that young children can and should learn. They tend to focus on memorization rather than showing how to add, divide or use geometry.

The researchers emphasize that there is great potential to teach concepts. Better teaching methods, for example, could include helping children understand how many toy trucks are in a room if they are holding three and two are on the floor, how to divide a plate of cookies among friends, or how to arrange geometrical shapes into a pattern. Even young children can learn that numbers can be decomposed into small units and that there are defining features of shapes, the researchers say. Young children can also learn how to reason with numbers and solve problems — skills that are not typically emphasized in these classes today.

 At the two-day meeting this month at Stanford, a group of national experts on early math teaching and learning began developing the model to instruct preschool and early elementary teachers on how to improve their students’ math skills. Through the winter and spring the team will perfect the model, which will consist of a curriculum and accompanying tools such as videos of good teaching examples and rubrics for evaluating the quality of teaching.  

In the summer of 2013, 60 preschool and early elementary grade teachers — 30 at Stanford and 30 at UCLA — will participate in the professional development program, beginning with a four-day intensive on the university campuses, followed by seminars over the course of the school year. School leaders will select participants on the basis of their potential for serving as instructional leaders and support for other teachers in their schools.

About 10 university and community college faculty members will participate in developing the professional development program and assist with its implementation. These faculty members will represent colleges with substantial teacher-preparation programs and are intended to serve as leaders in their departments to strengthen and improve instruction in mathematics teaching to young children.

Over three years of the program, the researchers plan to educate 180 preschool and elementary teachers and involve 30 college faculty members, all in California.

“The idea is to have a multiplying effect,” said Stipek. “The hope is that better math education techniques will spread through preschool and elementary teaching communities and that college professors will improve and expand their teaching of math education.”

To ensure that the workshops are improving early math instruction, researchers at Stanford and UCLA will survey the teacher-coaches, survey teachers who were coached, and interview school administrators. They will also look at student assessments to see whether the children are developing better math skills.

The researchers will interview the faculty participants as well, to see how helpful they found the workshops and whether they are building or improving their instruction in teaching math to young children.


Mandy Erickson is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.