Early Math Projects helps teachers understand the “big ideas” in math

The mathematics achievement gap in this country has been the subject of hand wringing, dire predictions, and plenty of blame. Now, thanks to the Early Mathematics Education Project, it’s the subject of progress.

As a scholar, Jennifer McCray, Ph.D., is cautious. So when evaluation data on the Early Mathematics Education Project (EMEP) came back showing positive effects, not just on teacher perceptions but on student progress, she took a deep breath, then ran the numbers again.

boy counting

The results were the same. “Children who were behind in the fall and whose teachers were in our program began to ‘catch up.’ They learned the equivalent of 3 months more math than other children,” she says.

That progress is no anomaly. It’s the result of a meticulously crafted, expertly delivered professional development program, a partnership between Erikson and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), that focuses on what McCray and the project’s principal investigator, Professor Jie-Qi Chen, call a “whole teacher” approach.

“It’s not enough to increase a teacher’s content knowledge or teaching skill,” Chen explains. “You have to work with the teacher’s attitudes and beliefs, too, and you have to help them change their classroom practice. You need to help them become more intentional in their work.

“Too often, early childhood teachers don’t have a clear goal in their mind when working with a group of young children,” she adds. “Exploration is important, but it isn’t sufficient.”

The weakest link

For teachers, the trouble often begins in their teacher education program. Prospective teachers who don’t want to do a lot of math are frequently advised to pursue a career in early childhood. And methods courses tend to ignore the development of math skills that occurs before the use of written symbols. McCray, who directs the EMEP, calls this a “missed opportunity.”

In 2009, the National Research Council published a report urging an increase in the amount of mathematics instruction at the preprimary and primary levels, especially for children from low-income homes. The report noted that young children have a natural interest in math.

It also attributed the scarcity of mathematics instruction in early childhood classrooms to educators’ fears that the subject area is too difficult for preschoolers or is in conflict with developmentally appropriate practice.

A study done at the behest of CPS attests to the lack of mathematics instruction in preschool. Erikson researchers found that more than 90 percent of the system’s early childhood classrooms teach literacy on any given day, but only 21 percent teach mathematics.

McCray suggests a reason for the imbalance that goes beyond fears about the suitability of math for young children. “Early childhood teachers are under-confident in mathematics,” she says. “They don’t think they can do it.”

Building knowledge and confidence

“I used to think that ‘math’ was a series of computational skills that had no relation to anything in the real world—except for recipes or figuring out the area for carpeting. Wrong!” laughs Kathleen Katsoudas, a preschool teacher at the Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center.

Math Project classes invite teachers to discover for themselves the fundamental principles of algebra, number and operations, measurement, geometry and spatial relations, and data analysis and probability—content strands identified by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Classes are structured as working sessions, more laboratory than lecture, and teachers have the opportunity to “play” with a wealth of math materials.

The springboard for their explorations—and their students’—is children’s literature. Colorful storybooks are more than a gateway to new words and characters. They are also rich in things to count, to add or subtract, or to categorize.

“Children’s literature is great because it gives everyone a common reference,” says Mary Hynes-Berry, PhD, a project instructor and early literacy expert. “And kids love it.”

A lesson developed by Marisol Sierra, a pre-K teacher at McKinley Park Elementary School, is a case in point. It was inspired by The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, a classic tale of a beautiful yet boastful fish unwilling to share his sparkling scales with the more ordinary fish in the ocean.

To help her students in this low-income school explore the big idea of measurement, Sierra created the fish estimation game, in which children try to guess how many Goldfish crackers are in a jar. The estimates are written on a chart, and when everyone has made their guess, the crackers are counted. Eating the Goldfish follows the activity.

Math with shoes

Storybooks are only the beginning. Once teachers begin to understand the “big ideas” in math, they become adept at seeing the ways in which children can experience those ideas in their daily lives.
Take shoes, for instance. One teacher invited children in her class to classify the shoes they were wearing, grouping them by color, by how they were fastened, by material. Students graphed the results and saw how some classifications yielded more dramatic differences than others. Such concrete experience enables children to grasp sophisticated concepts.

Cash register

Megan Lynd-Meier, a kindergarten teacher at Murphy School, recently led her 20 5-year-olds on a “number walk,” quietly searching the hallways looking for the number 2. “We found out that it meant the second floor, part of the name of a room, and even time on a clock,” she says. “Learning about the number suddenly had a purpose.

“After completing the Erikson Math Project, I think I approach my lessons with a renewed sense of wonder and awe,” she says.

Adding to success

Real success for any professional preparation program involves extending the learning experience beyond the program itself. To ensure that the program benefits are lasting, the Math Project is developing teams of coaches—veteran teachers—who receive the early math education training and then work with their colleagues in the schools throughout the academic year. A set of materials to strengthen teachers’ understanding of the “big ideas” is also being developed. These will be used to train trainers and can eventually be available to other school districts that want to implement the model.

And while the project began with school-based pre-K teachers, the i3 grant will enable the team to extend the in-service training up to third grade.

Chen and McCray’s long-term goals, however, reach far beyond that. “This could be the first branch of what becomes a whole STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] program,” says Chen. “That would be the big goal.”