Early Childhood: Pre-K may boost math scores

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Jackie Mader

By Jackie Mader

One of the only recent studies following graduates of public pre-K programs into middle school delivered some positive news for those seeking to expand such opportunities: Students in Georgia who attended the state’s prekindergarten program at age four were up to twice as likely to meet academic standards on the state’s standardized math test in grades 4-7.  

“We weren’t surprised,” said Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia, and one of the authors of the study, which encompassed 458 children. “It’s not about intellect or capacity, it’s just about access. These little scholars [got] access to a really enriched vocabulary environment and early exposure to math skills.” 

The study looked at children who attended pre-K in Georgia during the 1999-00 school year and analyzed their performance on state tests compared to peers who did not attend pre-K. It found that in fourth through seventh grade, graduates of the Georgia pre-k program were one and half to two times more likely to meet the state’s academic standards on math tests than their peers who did not attend public pre-K. The program at that time was less academically ambitious but more comprehensive, said Neuharth-Pritchett. Families had access to supports, including wraparound services, that are no longer funded by the state. Throughout its history, the program has maintained high quality standards and during the year studied, a majority of teachers had master’s degrees.   

Georgia launched a pilot of what became the country’s first state-funded universal pre-K program in 1992, funded by revenue from the state lottery. By 2019, 60 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds were served by the program, which met 8 out of 10 quality benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The state spent about $4,500 per enrolled child in 2019. The program operates in partnership with public schools, private child care centers and other organizations. Other research has found that in kindergarten and first grade, graduates of the state-funded program have made significant academic gains. 

Neuharth-Pritchett said the positive impact on graduates’ math skills is likely due to the general environment of high-quality classrooms, which can launch kids into successful school careers. “The really wonderful thing about pre-K is there are so many opportunities to include language of mathematical concepts,” she said. “All these things are done in a very developmentally appropriate way… it’s the type of language that would prepare them to be able to hear similar language when they move to kindergarten, so they can be successful in making that transition.” 

More on pre-K math

This 2019 article I wrote for The Hechinger Report highlighted a study that found young children are capable of more complex math topics than their caregivers may think. 

This 2018 story by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report looks at how to increase math skills in the early grades. 

This recent story by Sydney Johnson for EdSource looks at how one preschool piloted a math program remotely with the help of a statewide math grant initiative. 

Bonus: The National Museum of Mathematics offers online resources and programs for young children to learn mathematics from home. In non-Covid times, the museum operates exhibits and programs aimed at introducing children to math and changing the “reputation” of math, according to Cindy Lawrence, the museum’s executive director and CEO, so that “math is not immediately a word that makes them feel disengaged or afraid or like it’s something they can’t do.” 

 Research Quick Take
  • Many states are failing to take advantage of the ability to transfer funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, to child care subsidy programs, according to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Between 2000 and 2019, monetary transfers from TANF to the child Care and Development Fund, or CCDF, decreased by over $1 billion nationwide; the number of states transferring funds dropped from 46 to 26. This could be hampering states’ efforts to help parents afford high-quality childcare, the report cautions. “States’ ability to transfer TANF funds to the CCDF program is crucial for promoting the high-quality environments children need to build a healthy foundation for life and for helping families access the stable child care arrangement they need to find and maintain employment,” wrote the report’s authors.  

  • Despite the challenges of the last year, parents are largely optimistic that their children will experience more opportunities to succeed and thrive than previous generations—with some significant differences along racial and ethnic lines, according to a new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors of the report interviewed 2,000 parents and caregivers and found that 27 percent of Latino parents think all children have the same opportunity to thrive, compared to 9 percent of Black parents. Parents also differ in their concerns for their children during childhood and teen years, with 78 percent of white parents responding they feel it’s likely their children will experience anxiety as they grow up, compared to 64 percent of Latino parents.  

  • Bonus: The National Institute for Early Education Research is out today with a plan to fund high-quality pre-K for all 3 and 4-year-olds by 2040. The plan would cost the federal government an additional $7.7 billion and state and local governments would need to chip in $13.3 billion during the first four years, with annual increases to follow. This funding would support a high-quality, full-day preschool program 180 days a year with competitive salaries for teachers.

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