Research finds disparity between kindergarten math curriculum and knowledge

While famed American author Robert Fulghum claims that all he really needed to know he learned in kindergarten, this does not seem to be the case for millions of five-year-olds across the United States. Amy Claessens, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, recently published a paper that shows that many kindergarten teachers are instructing students in mathematics the children already learned before entering kindergarten, and that this disparity between curriculum and knowledge is damaging many students’ mathematics education.

Lack of Complex Material 
Claessens and her two co-authors explored the relationship among students’ math knowledge when they started school, classroom curricula and end-of-year math scores. They found that while the vast majority of children had mastered counting and could recognize simple geometric shapes on the first day of kindergarten, teachers still typically spent 13 days per month teaching these concepts throughout the school year. They also found that this repeated review and lack of more complex material led to lower math scores in the first year of school.

Working with Mimi Engel of Vanderbilt University and Maida Finch of Salisbury University, Claessens published, “Teaching Students What they Already Know? The (Mis)alignment Between Mathematics Instructional Content and Student Knowledge in Kindergarten” in June 2013 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Skills Acquired in Kindergarten Key to Success
In a previous study, Claessens and Engel found that the mathematics knowledge and skills that students have when they start school and those they acquire during kindergarten are key to later school success. In the current study they found, using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten data, that kindergarten teachers reported spending nearly twice as much instructional time on reading compared with mathematics. Other data has also showed that this pattern continues in the average public elementary school through at least fourth grade.

“The ECLSK is nationally representative, has good test-score measures and has measures of teacher content coverage,” Claessens explained. “Although the content measures are not ideal, the size of the dataset, its representativeness and its test score measures made it a great fit.”

The researchers discovered that while students who could not count or identify basic geometric shapes did benefit from this content coverage, 95 percent of kindergarten students already had this knowledge. They also found that for most children, repeated exposure to basic content lowered math achievement scores at the end of kindergarten. At the same time, exposure to more advanced mathematics content in kindergarten was associated with higher math scores. For example, teaching addition and subtraction an additional four days per month was associated with increased mathematics test scores at the end of kindergarten.

Classroom Content vs. Teacher Experience
As for the best methods for teaching mathematics, Claessens, Engels and Finch cited studies which found “teaching for understanding” and “drill” methods both improved math scores and that those instructors who include high-quality discussion and rigorous activities while setting high expectations for their students are more effective than those that do not have these characteristics.

Interestingly, the team concluded that classroom content and not teacher experience appear to cause the lower math scores. Many researchers have spent years trying to link teacher characteristics such as years of experience, certification, and years of education to their effectiveness, but have not been able to confirm that connection.

“There is a large body of research documenting the fact that most observable teacher characteristics are not strongly associated with teacher effectiveness,” Claessens noted. “Our study focused on classroom content. We did control for teacher characteristics, and our findings were consistent with prior literature.”

Implications for Teachers
After analyzing all of their data, the team drew some interesting conclusions that could ultimately change the way kindergarten is taught. First, they hypothesize that exposure to mathematical content that is at or below the level of knowledge and skills children had when they started kindergarten will be negatively associated with math learning during kindergarten. Therefore, they concluded, exposure to math content that is beyond their current skills improves not only their mathematical abilities but also their math achievement scores. 

The researchers also discussed the possibility that the content covered in classrooms is easier to change than how the subject is taught or the amount of time it is taught.  Training teachers in new methods and skills is time intensive and difficult. On the other hand, having teachers change the actual content they cover should be simpler and less time consuming. Consequently, teaching more complex mathematical concepts in kindergarten should be a relatively simple fix that should improve students’ test scores.

As their research moves forward, the team would like to explore the reasons why there is such a strong misalignment between kindergarten students’ mathematical knowledge and the curriculum they are taught.

“We would like to eventually study why kindergarten teachers spend so little on math and on such basic content, but currently there is little available data to do this,” Claessens explained.

--Robin Mordfin