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Math in the Early Years
A Strong Predictor for Later School Success
THE PROGRESS OF
Vol. 14, No. 5
The earliest years of a child’s education—from birth through 3rd grade—set the
foundation upon which future learning is built. In recent years, state policymakers have
emphasized the need to improve children’s reading skills early on because a lack in this
essential skill is a strong predictor of low student performance and increased high school
dropout rates. By 2012, a total of 32 states plus the District of Columbia had policies in
statute aimed at improving 3rd-grade literacy, with 14 of those states requiring retention
of students on the basis of reading proficiency. While the emphasis on reading proficiency
is critical, research shows that the development of mathematics skills early on may be an
even greater predictor of later school success. Early knowledge of math not only predicts
later success in math, but also predicts later reading achievement even better than early
Young children have a surprising capacity to learn substantial mathematics, but most
children in the U.S. have a discouraging lack of opportunities to do so. Too many
children not only start behind, but they also begin a negative and immutable trajectory in
mathematics, with insidious long-term effects. These negative effects are in one of the most
important subjects of academic life and also affect children’s overall life course.
The good news is that programs and curricula
designed to facilitate mathematical learning from
the earlier years, continued through elementary
school, have a strong positive effect on these
children’s lives for many years thereafter.
Starting early—in preschool—with high-quality
mathematics education, creates an opportunity
for substantial mathematical learning in the
primary years that builds on these foundational
This issue of The Progress of Education Reform
reveals five surprising findings about the
importance of early math learning, and provides
implications and recommendations for state policy.
Surprise 1: Math’s predictive power
Surprise 2: Children’s math potential
Surprise 3: Educators underestimate
Surprise 4: Math intervention for all
Surprise 5: How children think about
and learn math
Written for ECS by Drs. Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama (http://du.academia.edu/DouglasClements)
Surprising Research Findings
Surprise 1: There is predictive power in early mathematics
Mathematical thinking is cognitively foundational1, and
children’s early knowledge of math strongly predicts their
later success in math.2 More surprising is that preschool
mathematics knowledge predicts achievement even into high
school.3 Most surprising is that it also predicts later reading
achievement even better than early reading skills.4 In fact,
research shows that doing more mathematics increases oral
language abilities, even when measured during the following
school year. These include vocabulary, inference, independence,
and grammatical complexity.5 Given the importance of
mathematics to academic success in all subjects6, all children
need a robust knowledge of mathematics in their earliest years.
Surprise 2: Given opportunities to learn, young children possess an informal knowledge of mathematics that is amazingly broad,
complex, and sophisticated7
When children ‘play,’ they are often doing much more than that. Preschoolers can learn to invent solutions to solve
simple arithmetic problems, and almost all of them engage in substantial amounts of pre-mathematical activity
in their free play.8 In fact, early childhood programs that include more mathematics have increased higher-level
free play, all of which promotes self-regulation and executive function. Through higher-level play, children explore
patterns, shapes, and spatial relations; compare magnitudes; and count objects. Importantly, this is shown to be true
regardless of the children’s income level or gender.9 These explorations through play are pre-mathimatical. It is high-
quality education that can help all children utilize their inherent skills in order to truly mathematize.10 However, if
high-quality mathematics education does not start in preschool and continue through the early years, most children
are trapped in a trajectory of failure.11
Surprise 3: Teachers vastly underestimate what their children know and can learn12
In numerous countries, professionals in multiple educational roles vastly
underestimate beginning students' abilities.13 One study showed that groups
of teachers, teacher trainers, and counselors who worked with preschoolers
underestimated the mathematical competencies of these very same students
when they entered kindergarten.14 For example, more than 80% of the
students could count out nine marbles, but the adults’ estimates were from
20% to 50%. More than 40% of the students could subtract 10 – 8 without
objects, but all adults estimated less than 10%. If teachers and those who
work with teachers underestimate what students already know and can learn,
they will not present appropriate, challenging mathematics activities.
Surprise 4: All students need a math intervention
Most children benefit from a math intervention.15 As W. Steven Barnett and
others’ research has shown, it is not just the poorest children who need
interventions.16 When they enter kindergarten, most children are behind
their peers from the best-funded communities. That is, there is a significant
gap between every “quintile” and the highest 20% (see Figure 1 on following
page). Still, those in poverty need mathematics interventions the most.17
There is a three-year difference in mathematics developmental level for
students from low-resource versus high-resource communities.18
What do parents and children say about math?
Math is very important
Schools need to help the
brightest learn math (parents)
Children who like math before
Math is very important
I am good at math
Source: Harrison Group, PROMISE research, Phase 2, June 2010, Michigan
Before her 4th birthday, Abby was given five train
engines. She walked in one day with three of them. Her
father said, “Where’s the other ones?” “I lost them,” she
admitted. “How many are missing?” he asked. “I have
one, two, three. So [pointing in the air] foooour, fiiiive ...
two are missing, four and five. [pause] No! I want these
to be [pointing at the three engines] one, three, and five.
So, two and four are missing. Still two missing, but they’re
numbers two and four.”Abby thought about counting and
numbers—at least small numbers—abstractly. She could
assign one, two, and three to the three engines, or one,
three, and five! Moreover, she could count the numbers.
That is, she applied counting ... to counting numbers!
Surprise 5: We know a lot
A lot is known about how children
think about and learn math, and
teachers can use learning trajectories
to synthesize this knowledge into
effective interventions for children.
There are books and research
available to districts that detail the
learning trajectories that can help
underlie scientific approaches to
standards, assessment, curricula,
and professional development and
provide teachers with curricula that
show effect sizes that are large and
significant.19 Two such models are
the Building Blocks curriculum and
TRIAD scale-up model (see figures
2 and 3). High-quality instruction
has meaningful effects on children’s
20% Second Lowest
20% Second Highest
Source: Analysis of data from the
Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99
(See nces.ed.gov/ecls/kindergarten.asp) by W. Steven Barnett and Milagros Nores for
the National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research.
When they enter kindergarten, children from lower- and middle-income families are, on average, far behind their wealthier peers in reading,
mathematics, and general knowledge. High-quality preschool could help close this gap in school readiness.
Figure 1: Closing the school-readiness gap
Average Academic Ability Scores
Family Outcome by Quintile
PreK Pre PreK Post Kindergarten Post 1st Grade Post
TRIAD Follow Through
TRIAD > Control, ES = .28
TRIAD FT > Control, ES = .51
TRIAD FT > TRIAD, ES = .24
Source: D.H. Clements, J. Sarama, C.B. Wolfe, and M.E. Spitler, "Longitudinal Evaluation of a Scale-up Model for Teaching
Mathematics with Trajectories and Technologies: Persistence of Effects in the Third Year,"
American Educational Research Journal
50(4), (2013): 812-850, doi: 10.3102/0002831212469270.
Figure 2: Mathematics achievement scores for
children using Triad Scale-up Model
Policy Implications and Recommendations
The Importance of High-Quality Curriculum and Instruction
The quality of mathematics education varies across settings but is
generally disappointing, especially in the earliest years. For example,
60% of 3-year-olds had no mathematical experience of any kind across
180 observations.21 Even if a program adapts an ostensibly “complete”
curriculum, mathematics is often inadequate, with the most commonly
used engendering no more math instruction than a control group.22
It is little surprise, then, that evaluations show little or no learning of
mathematics in these schools.23 As an example, observations of Opening
the World of Learning (OWL), which includes mathematics in its
curriculum, found that out of a 360-minute school day, only 58 seconds
were devoted to mathematics. Most children made no gains in math
skills, and some lost mathematics competence over the school year.24 Teachers often believe that they are “doing
mathematics” when they provide puzzles, blocks, and songs. Even when they teach mathematics, that content is
usually not the main focus, but is “embedded” in a fine-motor or reading activity.25 Unfortunately, evidence suggests
such an approach is ineffective.26 To ensure a program is truly effective, policymakers and school leaders must
prioritize investing in high-quality math curricula and instruction that meet the needs of all students.
Teacher certification for pre-K through 3rd-grade teachers should emphasize both knowledge of the subject
(specifically, a profound knowledge of the math taught in early and elementary years) and strengths in pedagogy. It is
only recently that some states are requiring teachers to be evaluated on fluency in literacy instruction. What we now
know is that math instruction is far more effective coming from a specialist who understands both the subject matter
and the most effective ways in which young children learn math. A successful program will be one that ensures that
early math instructors specialize in these areas. One solution may be for a school to designate a teacher in each grade
who is responsible for teaching only math to all students.
Percent of adults who cannot
compute a 10% tip
Percent who cannot compute
the interest paid on a loan
Percent who cannont calculate
miles per gallon on a trip
Source: G.W. Phillips,
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science
Indicators for Comparing States and Nations
(Washington, DC: American Institutes
for Research, 2007).
Control Building Blocks
Source: J. Sarama, A. Lange, D.H. Clements, and C.B. Wolfe, "The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and Language,"
Early Childhood Research Quarterly
, 27, (2012): 489-
502, doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
Figure 3: Expressive oral language scores at the beginning of kindergarten for
children who used the Building Block curriculum in preschool.
Seamless Learning Trajectories
The most common argument offered for limiting investments in preschool is that the gains made are soon lost as
a child matriculates through the early primary grades. The losses primarily signify a siloed approach to education,
where each grade level and teacher holds different expectations for students, creating a learning trajectory that is not
seamless. Therefore, in order for students to benefit from math instruction in the early years, primary grade teachers
must build on early math interventions and engage students in more interesting, challenging, and substantial math
lessons as students progress through competency levels. If there are follow-through interventions in kindergarten and
the primary grades, students maintain their preschool advantages.27 This effect is highlighted in Figure 2 (page 3),
which presents a significant, positive effect on student math scores when the Triad Model is used on an ongoing basis.
Early math is not often emphasized in teacher preparation programs. As a result, pre-service and in-service teachers
alike lack content knowledge, such as understanding of mathematical concepts and procedures. More importantly,
they lack mathematics knowledge for teaching—how mathematical knowledge is interconnected and connected to
the real world, how a student’s thinking about mathematical content develops, and how mathematical content can be
taught in a meaningful manner.28 They suffer from negative effects, including math anxiety and a lack of confidence
in their own mathematical ability and ability to teach mathematics—beliefs that lead to undervaluing the teaching
of mathematics or prevent effective teaching.29 Therefore, professional development for early childhood mathematics
needs to address content (mathematical) knowledge, particularly mathematics knowledge for teaching, as well as
pedagogical knowledge, and affective issues.30
It is time to begin shifting the mindset of teachers, district leaders, and policymakers from a ‘reading only’ early
intervention strategy to one that incorporates and even emphasizes mathematical thinking and reasoning. To do
so, stakeholders should take a deep look into the current state of early math instruction beginning in preschool and
creating a seamless trajectory for math learning through the early grades. Education leaders should find ways to
maximize children’s abilities to learn by evaluating the current state of mathematics instruction within schools, based
not only on the current curricula, but also the time committed to instruction, as well as who is doing that instructing.
Most children can master the required skills early if given the chance.
Dr. Clements engages in math activites with two kindergarteners in order to help them understand
the core unit of patterns.
1 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, Learning and Teaching Early Math: The Learning Trajectories Approach (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009);
D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children (New York, NY:
2 K. Denton and J. West, Children's Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade (Washington, D.C., vol. 2002,
3 National Mathematics Advisory Panel, Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (Washington
D.C.: National Research Council, 2008); Mathematics in Early Childhood: Learning Paths Toward Excellence and Equity (Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press, 2009); H.W. Stevenson and R.S. Newman, “Long-term Prediction of Achievement and Attitudes in Mathematics and
Reading,” Child Development, 57, 646-659, 1986.
4 G.J. Duncan, C.J. Dowsett, A. Claessens, K. Magnuson, A.C. Huston, P. Klebanov, and C. Japel, “School Readiness and Later Achievement,”
Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446, 2007; D.C. Farran, C. Aydogan, S.J. Kang, M. Lipsey, Preschool Classroom Environments and
the Quantity and Quality of Children's Literacy and Language Behaviors, 2005; M.K. Lerkkanen, H. Rasku-Puttonen, K. Aunola, and J.E.
Nurmi, “Mathematical Performance Predicts Progress in Reading Comprehension Among 7-year-olds,” European Journal of Psychology of
Education, 20(2), 121-137, 2005.
5 J. Sarama, A. Lange, D.H. Clements, and C.B. Wolfe, “The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and
Language,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 489-502, 2012, doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
6 P.M. Sadler and R.H. Tai, “The Two High-School Pillars Supporting College Science,” Science, 317, 457-458, 2007.
7 A.J. Baroody, The Developmental Bases for Early Childhood Number and Operations Standards, 2004; B.A. Clarke, D.M. Clarke, and J.
Cheeseman, “The Mathematical Knowledge and Understanding Young Children Bring to School,” Media Education Research Journal, 18(1),
81-107, 2006; D.H. Clements, S. Swaminathan, M.A.Z. Hannibal, and J. Sarama, “Young Children’s Concepts of Shape,” Journal for Research
in Mathematics Education, 30, 192-212, 1999.
8 J. Sarama and D.H. Clements, Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children (New York, NY:
Routledge, 2009); H.P. Ginsburg, N. Inoue, and K.H. Seo, “Young Children Doing Mathematics: Observations of Everyday Activities,” in J.V.
Copley (Ed.), Mathematics in the Early Years (Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1999, 88-89).
9 K.H Seo and H.P. Ginsburg, “What is Developmentally Appropriate in Early Childhood Mathematics Education?” in D.H. Clements, J.
Sarama, and A.M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging Young Children in Mathematics: Standards for Early Childhood Mathematics Education
(Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2004, 91-104).
10 B. Doig, B. McCrae, and K. Rowe, A Good Start to Numeracy: Effective Numeracy Strategies from Research and Practice in Early Childhood
(Canberra ACT, Australia, 2003); S. Thomson, K. Rowe, C. Underwood, and R. Peck, Numeracy in the Early Years: Project Good Start
(Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research, 2005).
11 C. Rouse, J. Brooks-Gunn, and S. McLanahan, “Introducing the Issue,” The Future of Children, 15, 2005, 5-14.
12 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, Learning and Teaching Early Math: The Learning Trajectories Approach (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009).
13 C. Aubrey, “Children’s Early Learning of Number in School and Out,” in I. Thompson (Ed.) Teaching and Learning Early Number (Philadel-
phia, PA: Open University Press, 1997, 20-29).
14 M. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, “Realistic Arithmetic/Mathematics Instruction and Tests,” in K.P.E. Gravemeijer, M. Van den Heuvel-
Panhuizen & L. Streefland (Eds.), Contexts Free Productions Tests and Geometry in Realistic Mathematics Education (Utrecht, The
Netherlands: OW&OC, 1990, 53-78).
15 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, “Early Childhood Mathematics Intervention,” Science, 333(6045), 2011, 968-970, doi: 10.1126/
science.1204537; D.H. Clements, J. Sarama, M.E. Spitler, A.A. Lange, C.B. Wolfe, “Mathematics Learned by Young Children in an
Intervention Based on Learning Trajectories: A Large-scale Cluster Randomized Trial,” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,
42(2), 2011, 127-166.
16 R.C. Pianta, W.S. Barnett, M.R. Burchinal, and K.R. Thornburg, “The Effects of Preschool Education: What We Know, How Public Policy Is
or Is Not Aligned with the Evidence Base, and What We Need to Know,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(2), 2009, 49-88, doi:
17 J. Sarama and D.H. Clements, Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children (New York,
NY: Routledge, 2009); D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, “Early Childhood Mathematics Intervention,” Science, 333(6045), 2011, 968-970, doi:
18 B. Wright, “What Number Knowledge Is Possessed by Children Beginning the Kindergarten Year of School?” Mathematics Education
Research Journal, 3(1), 1991, 1-16.
19 D.H. Clements, & J. Sarama, Learning and Teaching Early Math: The Learning Trajectories Approach (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); J.
Sarama, and D.H. Clements, Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children (New York, NY:
20 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, “Early Childhood Mathematics Intervention,” Science, 333(6045), 2011, 968-970; D.H. Clements and J.
Sarama, “Rethinking Early Mathematics: What Is Research-based Curriculum for Young Children?” in L.D. English & J.T. Mulligan
(Eds.), Reconceptualizing Early Mathematics Learning, 2013, 121-147; D.H. Clements, J. Sarama, M.E. Spitler, A.A. Lange, "Longitudinal
Evaluation of a Scale-up Model for Teaching Mathematics with Trajectories and Technologies: Persistence of Effects in the Third Year,”
American Education Research Journal, August 2013, vol. 50 no. 4, 812-850; J. Sarama and D.H. Clements, “Lessons Learned in the
Implementation of the TRIAD Scale-up Model: Teaching Early Mathematics with Trajectories and Technologies,” in T.G. Halle, A.J. Metz and
I. Martinez-Beck (Eds.), Applying Implementation Science in Early Childhood Programs and Systems, (Baltimore, MD: Brookes, 2013, 173-
191); J. Sarama, D.H. Clements, C.B. Wolfe, and M.E. Spitler, “Longitudinal Evaluation of a Scale-up Model for Teaching Mathematics with
Trajectories and Technologies,” Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5(2), 2012, 105-135; J. Sarama, A. Lange, D.H. Clements,
and C.B. Wolfe, “The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and Language,” Early Childhood Research
Quarterly, 27, 2012, 489-502, doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
© 2013 by the Education Commission
of the States (ECS). All rights reserved.
ECS encourages its readers to
share our information with others.
To reprint or excerpt some of
our material, please contact ECS
at 303.299.3600 or e-mail
The Education Commission of the
States is a nationwide nonprofit
organization formed in 1965 to
help governors, state legislators,
state education officials, and others
to develop policies to improve the
quality of education. ECS is the only
nationwide, nonpartisan interstate
compact devoted to education at
Past issues of
The Progress of
on our website at:
This issue of
The Progress of Education Reform
was made possible by a
grant from the GE Foundation. This issue was written by Doug Clements,
Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at
the University of Denver, and Julie Sarama, Kennedy Endowed Chair in
Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver
For more information on this topic, contact Emily Workman, Policy Analyst,
Education Commission of the States at email@example.com.
Recent State Policies/Activities: Preschool Policies
Summaries and links to newly enrolled or enacted legislation and recently approved state board rules from
across the states. Updated weekly.
Third Grade Reading Policies
This paper outlines state policies relating to 3rd-grade reading proficiency, including identification of,
intervention for, and retention of struggling readers in the P-3 grades. The paper provides a state-by-state
policy summary, sample statutory language, and highlights from bills enacted this year.
ECS Research Studies Database:
Find research studies that provide features that define high-quality learning environments for PreK-3 students:
or on what mathematics practices impact student achievement:
21 J.R.H. Tudge and F. Doucet, “Early Mathematical Experiences: Observing Young Black and White
Children’s Everyday Activities,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 2004, 21-39.
22 C. Aydogan, C.Plummer, S.J. Kang, C. Bilbrey, D.C. Farran, and M.W. Lipsey, An Investigation of
Prekindergarten Curricula: Influences on Classroom Characteristics and Child Engagement, 2005;
Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium, Effects of Preschool Curriculum Programs on
School Readiness (NCER 2008-09, 2008).
23 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, "Effects of a Preschool Mathematics Curriculum: Summative Research on
the Building Blocks Project," Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 38, 2007, 136-163; Head
Start Impact Study: First Year Findings (Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services,
24 D.C. Farran, M.W. Lipsey, B. Watson, and S. Hurley, Balance of Content Emphasis and Child Content
Engagement in an Early Reading First Program, 2007; K.C. Fuson, “Pre-K to Grade 2 Goals and
Standards: Achieving 21st Century Mastery for All,” in D.H. Clements, J. Sarama, and A.M. DiBiase
(Eds.), Engaging Young Children in Mathematics: Standards for Early Childhood Mathematics
25 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, Learning and Teaching Early Math: The Learning Trajectories Approach
(New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); National Research Council, Mathematics in Early Childhood: Learn-
ing Paths Toward Excellence and Equity (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2009).
26 National Research Council, Mathematics in Early Childhood: Learning Paths toward Excellence and
Equity (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2009).
27 D.H. Clements, J. Sarama, C.B.Wolfe, and M.E. Spitler, “Longitudinal Evaluation of a Scale-up Model
for Teaching Mathematics with Trajectories and Technologies: Persistence of Effects in the Third Year,”
American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 2013, 812-850, doi: 10.3102/0002831212469270.
28 D.H. Clements and J. Sarama, Learning and Teaching Early Math: The Learning Trajectories Approach
(New York, NY: Routledge, 2009).
29 J. Sarama and D.H. Clements, Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories
for Young Children (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009).
30 D.L. Ball and H. Bass, “Interweaving Content and Pedagogy in Teaching and Learning to Teach: Know-
ing and Using Mathematics,” in J. Boaler (Ed.), Multiple Perspectives on the Teaching and Learning
of Mathematics (Westport, CT: Ablex., 2000, 83-104); A.J. Baroody, Fostering Children’s Mathematical
Power: An Investigative Approach to K-8 Mathematics Instruction (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998).