Research News

Most math being taught in kindergarten is old news to students

bored child with blocks

Kindergarten teachers report spending much of their math instructional time teaching students basic counting skills and how to recognize geometric shapes—skills the students have already mastered before ever setting foot in the kindergarten classroom, new research finds. The findings reveal a misalignment between what the students are being taught and what they already know.

“[rquote]This study is one of the first to raise the question: Is the content that teachers report teaching in kindergarten meeting the needs of the majority of their students?”[/rquote] Mimi Engel, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and lead author of the study, said.

“We looked at the data [from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort or ECLS-K], immersed ourselves in the literature, and we saw that it’s been well-documented that the vast majority of kids can count once they start kindergarten,” she continued. “About 95 percent of kids have mastered basic number skills—the numbers one through 10—both the language of counting and one-to-one correspondence. We also noticed that teachers spend a lot of time on these basic skills.”

Engel and her collaborators reported their findings online in November in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The study showed that the vast majority of students had mastered basic counting and shapes by the fall of kindergarten. In contrast, very few had mastered simple addition and subtraction.

Yet teachers reported spending the most classroom time—typically 13 days per month—on the skills the students had already mastered.

Devoting additional days per month to basic counting and shapes was negatively associated with end-of-kindergarten mathematics test scores. However, more time spent on teaching higher-level mathematics, such as place value, currency, ordinality, and addition and subtraction, was associated with an increase in math test scores at the end of kindergarten.

The findings showed that a large portion of the mathematics content taught during kindergarten may not meet the needs of many kindergarteners and that closer attention to children’s knowledge and skills at school entry may be warranted. In fact, the increases shown by spending more time on more advanced math topics suggest that a relatively modest shift in classroom coverage would lead to small gains in mathematics achievement.

“This study doesn’t help us get at why this [misalignment] occurred,” Engel said. “However, there’s another round soon to be released of the ECLS-K called the K:2011 that follows children who were in kindergarten in 2010-11. We’re dying to get our hands on that data to see if policies like No Child Left Behind shifted content in the classroom.”

Data from the ECLS-K was gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics to give a snapshot of what kindergarten looked like in 1998-99 for about 21,000 children nationally. These children were then followed through eighth grade. The data is rich in descriptive information on the children’s status at entry to school, their transition into school and their progression through eighth grade. The longitudinal nature of the ECLS-K data enables researchers to study how a wide ranfge of family, school, community and individual factors are associated with school performance.

Engel’s research uses the ECLS-K, other large-scale national databases and quantitative and qualitative means to investigate topics in education policy. The current research grew out of prior work on the effects of early academic achievement on later academic outcomes.

“Getting into it more from a policy perspective, there’s a structure around reading and a huge knowledge base around early reading. But it’s not clear that there’s as much emphasis or knowledge around math in early elementary classrooms, though there is research being done to support more structure.”

Engel collaborated on the study with Amy Claessens, assistant professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, and Maida A. Finch, PhD’12, assistant professor in the Department of Education Specialties at Salisbury University.

The article is forthcoming in print.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant #5R24HD051152- 07, the Oak Ridge Associated Universities Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award, the University of Chicago Population Research Center and Vanderbilt University.