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Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity Summary Mathematics education has risen to the top of the national policy agenda as part of the need to improve the technical and scientific literacy of the American public. The new demands of international competition in the 21st century require a workforce that is competent in and comfortable with mathematics. There is particular concern about the chronically low mathematics and science performance of economically disadvantaged students and the lack of diversity in the science and technical workforce. Particularly alarming is that such disparities exist in the earliest years of schooling and even before school entry. Recognizing the increasing importance of mathematics and encouraged by a decade of success in improving early literacy, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the Center for Education at the National Research Council established the Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics. The committee was charged with examining existing research in order to develop appropriate mathematics learning objectives for preschool children; providing evidence-based insights related to curriculum, instruction, and teacher education for achieving these learning objectives; and determining the implications of these findings for policy, practice, and future research. The committee found that, although virtually all young children have the capability to learn and become competent in mathematics, for most the potential to learn mathematics in the early years of school is not currently realized. This stems from a lack of opportunities to learn mathematics either in early childhood settings or through everyday experiences in homes and in communities. This is particularly the case for economically disad-
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Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity vantaged children, who start out behind in mathematics and will remain so without extensive, high-quality early mathematics instruction. In fact, well before first grade, children can learn the ideas and skills that support later, more complex mathematics understanding. There is expert consensus that two areas of mathematics are particularly important for young children to learn: (1) number, which includes whole number, operations, and relations; and (2) geometry, spatial thinking, and measurement. A rich body of research provides insight into how children’s proficiency develops in both areas and the instruction needed to support it. The committee used this evidence to develop research-based teaching-learning paths to guide policy and practice in early childhood education. Examination of current standards, curricula, and instruction in early childhood education revealed that many early childhood settings do not provide adequate learning experiences in mathematics. The relative lack of high-quality mathematics instruction, especially in comparison to literacy, reflects a lack of attention to mathematics throughout the childhood education system, including standards, curriculum, instruction, and the preparation and training of the teaching workforce. For example, many widely used early childhood curricula do not provide sufficient guidance on mathematics pedagogy or content. When early childhood classrooms do have mathematics activities, they are often presented as part of an integrated or embedded curriculum, in which the teaching of mathematics is secondary to other learning goals. Emerging research indicates, however, that learning experiences in which mathematics is a supplementary activity rather than the primary focus are less effective in promoting children’s mathematics learning than experiences in which mathematics is the primary goal. Finally, education and training for most teachers typically places heavy emphasis on children’s social-emotional development and literacy, with much less attention to mathematics. In fact, academic activities such as mathematics can be a context in which social-emotional development and the foundations of language and literacy flourish. As noted, opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction are especially important for low-income children. These children, on average, demonstrate lower levels of competence with mathematics prior to school entry, and the gaps persist or even widen over the course of schooling. Providing young children with extensive, high-quality early mathematics instruction can serve as a sound foundation for later learning in mathematics and contribute to addressing long-term systematic inequities in educational outcomes. The committee found that although the research to date about how young children develop and learn key concepts in mathematics has clear implications for practice, the findings are neither widely known nor imple-
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Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity mented by early childhood educators or those who teach them. To ensure that all children enter elementary school with the mathematical foundation they need for success requires that individuals throughout the early childhood education system—including the teaching workforce, curriculum developers, program directors, and policy makers—transform their approach to mathematics education in early childhood by supporting, developing, and implementing research-based practices and curricula. RECOMMENDATIONS Recommendation 1: A coordinated national early childhood mathematics initiative should be put in place to improve mathematics teaching and learning for all children ages 3 to 6. A number of specific recommendations for action follow from this overarching recommendation. The specific steps and the individuals or organization that must be involved in enacting them are outlined below. We provide further guidance about how to enact these steps in Chapter 9. Recommendation 2: Mathematics experiences in early childhood settings should concentrate on (1) number (which includes whole number, operations, and relations) and (2) geometry, spatial relations, and measurement, with more mathematics learning time devoted to number than to other topics. The mathematical process goals should be integrated in these content areas. Children should understand the concepts and learn the skills exemplified in the teaching-learning paths described in this report. Recommendation 3: All early childhood programs should provide high-quality mathematics curricula and instruction as described in this report. Recommendation 4: States should develop or revise their early childhood learning standards or guidelines to reflect the teaching-learning paths described in this report. Recommendation 5: Curriculum developers and publishers should base their materials on the principles and teaching-learning paths described in this report. Recommendation 6: An essential component of a coordinated national early childhood mathematics initiative is the provision of professional development to early childhood in-service teachers that helps them (a)
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Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity to understand the necessary mathematics, the crucial teaching-learning paths, and the principles of intentional teaching and curriculum and (b) to learn how to implement a curriculum. Recommendation 7: Coursework and practicum requirements for early childhood educators should be changed to reflect an increased emphasis on children’s mathematics as described in the report. These changes should also be made and enforced by early childhood organizations that oversee credentialing, accreditation, and recognition of teacher professional development programs. Recommendation 8: Early childhood education partnerships should be formed between family and community programs so that they are equipped to work together in promoting children’s mathematics. Recommendation 9: There is a need for increased informal programming, curricular resources, software, and other media that can be used to support young children’s mathematics learning in such settings as homes, community centers, libraries, and museums.