Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Governors have an important job to do: They can promote early math skills among young children. A new policy brief from the National Governors Association (NGA) called, “Unlocking Young Children’s Potential: Governors’ Role in Strengthening Early Mathematics Learning,” explains why.

“Studies find that the mathematics knowledge acquired in early childhood and early elementary grades is a critical foundation for long-term student success. A child’s math ability when he or she enters school has proved a better predictor of academic achievement, high school graduation, and college attendance than any other early childhood skill.”

In fact, the brief adds: “Early mathematics competency even predicts later reading achievement better than early literacy skills.”

Here in Massachusetts, JD Chesloff, a champion of early math, adds context to the report, explaining, “This is not to say that math should replace reading as a priority, but it is to say that there should be a focus on both literacy and numeracy.”

He adds: “STEM competencies are in high demand by employers across a variety of industries, and the best way to ensure the education and workforce pipeline is producing workers with those skills is to start at the beginning, with very young children.”

The former chair of the Board of the Department of Early Education and Care, Chesloff remains on the Board as a member, and he’s the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable.

Despite the benefits of strong early math skills, math is often less of a rallying point.

“Although most governors are already leading state efforts to improve early literacy,” the brief says, “emerging research suggests that they also should focus on improving young students’ proficiency in mathematics. In fact, the National Research Council’s (NRC) recent report on the topic of early mathematics concludes that basic literacy should be defined to include both reading and math skills.”

While researchers “don’t fully understand why early mathematics is so important,” the brief says, “studies find that mathematics learning is closely tied to students’ executive function skills—a set of cognitive processes, including problem solving, reasoning, working memory, and task flexibility—that supports student achievement across academic subjects.”

“Unfortunately, many students fail to master math skills and concepts during elementary school, developing negative attitudes about their ability to learn math,” an NGA release says.

Another challenge is for the United States to keep up with other nations. The brief says:

“…U.S. students are not demonstrating proficiency in mathematics during early childhood or beyond. By fourth grade, only 42 percent of students score at or above ‘proficient’ levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Studies also find a significant achievement gap in mathematics learning by race, ethnicity, and family income as early as kindergarten and growing by fifth grade.”

How Governors Can Promote Early Math

The brief calls on governors to “explore options to strengthen early mathematics education in their states” by focusing on three strategies:

Governors can also share and amplify the brief’s observation that, “Young children have the capacity to master more rigorous and complex mathematics concepts and skills, but current policies and practices fail to tap their potential.”

Governors Across the Country are Building Momentum

The brief notes that in 2009, “Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed an executive order establishing a STEM Advisory Council, charged with increasing student engagement and achievement in STEM fields, with a focus on addressing the entire educational pipeline from birth through postsecondary education.”

In addition: “As part of this effort, the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) has recently adopted early learning standards in STEM subjects, created new professional development opportunities for early educators, and implemented strategies to increase engagement with community members.”

Pennsylvania has defined readiness as proficiency in both reading and STEM skills. In 2013, Governor Corbett hosted a statewide governor’s symposium to bring together state and district leaders in early childhood and elementary education to discuss strategies for reaching that goal.”

In Colorado, Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia has also called for action. As the Denver Business Journal explains, “Garcia… said that while Colorado has been focused on early literacy efforts, the state also needs that same focus on early math skills.”

Garcia was speaking at “the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to discuss the importance of STEM education efforts to Colorado’s economy.”

Progress Within Reach

In 2007, the Erikson Institute launched its Early Math Collaborative to increase the quality of early math through research, professional development, and information sharing. The collaborative made two early math presentations at the annual National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference and Expo, which was held in Dallas earlier this month.

These and other efforts, offer governors the tools they need to take action. As the brief concludes:

“Many of the actions described in this brief require no or minimal new state funding and can help lay the groundwork for a state’s focus on high-quality early mathematics teaching and learning. As state leaders explore this area in more depth, they should weigh the costs and benefits of making new investments, particularly in educator training and supports, to yield long-term gains in student achievement.”