Giving Compass’ Take:
• Brookings reports that the High 5s program aimed at improving math skills in kindergarten students has proven to be an effective, but expensive, intervention.
• How can philanthropy support research into making this program cost-effective? What is an acceptable cost for this program?
• Learn about the benefits of math-focused interventions.
Over the last few decades there has been a heavy emphasis on increasing literacy skills among low-income children, with federal and state initiatives designed to ensure that all children can read by grade 3. State and federal dollars have been spent to improve reading curricula, hire reading coaches and provide tutoring and small group support for struggling readers. However, much less emphasis has been placed on improving the early math skills of students in low-income schools. Kindergarten classes typically devote less than one hour per day to math compared with over 1.5 hours for literacy. Moreover, kindergarten math instruction is often very basic, covering topics that students know when they enter kindergarten such as simple counting and shape recognition.
This is true despite research having shown that math skills are highly correlated not only with later math achievement but also with later reading achievement, high school completion, and college attendance.
A possible response to this situation would be small-group interventions designed to build young children’s math skills. Such interventions have a long history in literacy, and a strong research base suggests that small group literacy instruction is effective. In the area of math, there are few well-developed programs to provide supplemental math support or enrichment to young children, let alone rigorous research to determine whether such programs are effective.
Here we report findings from research on such a program that one of us (Robin Jacob) helped design and evaluate. The study suggests that small group math instruction for kindergarteners is a promising strategy for improving early mathematical competency. This example raises the question of whether educational progress has been exaggerated by students learning math and reading skills sooner than they used to (scores at younger ages rising) but not leaving school with greater knowledge (stagnant scores at older ages). NAEP scores over longer periods to time tend to show the largest increases for younger students and the smallest increases for older students (with especially dismal results for highschool students).
If a more cost-effective model can be developed, small group math instruction may be a promising approach for elementary schools to consider in the future.