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Stanford-led DREME network celebrates a decade of progress in early math

Deborah Stipek speaks on a panel about state policy and early childhood education
Deborah Stipek (right), director of DREME, leads a panel on building early math into state policies at a conference celebrating progress in the field of early math education. (Photo: Marc Franklin)

Stanford-led DREME network celebrates a decade of progress in early math

A national network led by GSE Professor Emeritus Deborah Stipek has advanced the field of early childhood math with innovative tools and research.

Ten years ago, Deborah Stipek set out to assemble a team of scholars who shared her interest in research into how young children, especially preschoolers, develop mathematical skills. As it turned out, there weren’t many.

“So we had to create some,” said Stipek, a professor emeritus and former dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), who was working with the Heising-Simons Foundation to build a national network of researchers focused on early math learning.

“We turned people who focused on literacy into ‘math people,’ ” she said. “[And] we convinced people who studied teaching and learning in elementary school that they needed to stretch down to littler kids.”

Their efforts worked — and soon the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network was born, with members and affiliates from 12 universities around the country. Over the past decade, led by Stipek, the network’s scholars have advanced the field with basic and applied research on early math development and innovative tools to promote math skills in young children.

“Early math is now on the map,” said Liz Simons, chair of the board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, which has supported DREME since its launch in 2014. “We’ve seen a huge push to develop curricula that is rigorous but developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive…. We’ve seen math show up in classrooms and playgrounds and books, in cultural settings, in communities. It’s just really exploded.”

On May 3, DREME celebrated the progress in the field at a conference hosted in collaboration with the Stanford Center on Early Childhood (SCEC), one of six initiatives of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. The event also marked a transition in the life of the DREME network, which is scaling back the volume of research it initiates.

The free conference, held at the Li Ka Shing Learning and Knowledge Center on the Stanford campus, drew educators, researchers, policymakers, community advocates, and others working in early childhood from around the United States and beyond.

From playful strategies to state policy

The day featured panels on a variety of issues in policy and practice, including helping families engage young children in playful math activities, broadening and deepening the ways in which math is introduced in the classroom, and supporting the professionals who prepare early childhood educators.

One panel focused on ways for school districts to address the disconnect between preschool and the early elementary grades, bridging the gap between what have historically been two separate systems. Creating continuity in learning requires more than just adding a preK space to an elementary school campus, said Cynthia Coburn, PhD ’01, a professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, who chaired the panel. “It’s also a task of aligning these different systems so they’re not competing against one another – that they’re mutually reinforcing and supporting teachers in teaching kids as they move across the grades.”

The final session of the day, led by Stipek, explored ways to build early math into state policies, given their influence in determining student learning standards, teacher credential requirements, how resources are allocated to districts, and other issues that affect how children learn. Panelists discussed the development of California’s new pK-3 teaching credential, the state’s recent rollout of universal transitional kindergarten, and ways to ensure accountability and effectiveness once state policies are implemented.

Ted Lempert, a former California State Assemblymember and current president of Children Now, emphasized the importance of advocacy from stakeholders at all levels. “[When you] leave this conference, you all can make a huge difference,” he told attendees. “It’s not just who you elect…. That one email you send to your legislator saying ‘Prioritize early math’ can make a lot more difference than you think.”

Finding energy and motivation

The conference also featured exhibits on research and tools supported by DREME, such as the DREME Math Observer, a mobile app to help coach teachers in early math; play-based math activities to support math and executive function skills; and storybook guides to help parents and caregivers talk about math with their children while reading together.

Attendees spoke of the value of DREME’s research and tools in their own work, many having traveled some distance to attend the one-day event.

Yusuf Koç, an associate professor of mathematics education at Kocaeli University in Turkey, said he regularly looks to DREME for resources and welcomed the opportunity to gather with fellow scholars and practitioners — even thousands of miles from home. “I design and implement [professional development] programs for practicing and preservice teachers, and early math is my passion,” he said. “I met new people, and found energy and motivation here,” he said.            

Phyllis Nakama-Kawamoto and Stacie Kaichi-Imamura, colleagues from the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design at the Hawaii Department of Education, have also long sought out DREME’s resources online and were eager to learn about new research at the conference.

Kaichi-Imamura, who also serves on the board of directors for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), was particularly drawn to the event as the NCTM develops a position statement on early childhood. “Everything that’s been shared here solidifies our thinking about how children should be engaging in mathematics,” she said.

At the close of the event, Stipek reiterated the need to work at all of the levels the conference addressed, from families and classrooms to school districts and state government. “We can’t just work at one, because one level can undermine — or support — whatever we’re doing at another level,” she said.

While she pointed to great progress in building attention and access to early math over the past decade, improving the quality of these math experiences remains a steep challenge, she said. “We had a lot of conversations today about how we might get there — working with teachers, working with parents, developing state policies, district systems and reforms,” she said. “We have some work to do to put what we learned today into action.”

Recordings of each session from the conference are available on the DREME website.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Deborah Stipek, Philip Fisher

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