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A new report from Child Trends' Hispanic Institute highlights the problem and possible solutions
Latino children currently make up 1 in 4 kindergartners nationwide. By 2050, they are expected to be 1 in 3. Latinos are the fastest-growing school-aged population among all races and ethnicities.
That’s one reason why the Child Trends’ Hispanic Institute’s latest report on early math skills is particularly troubling. On average, Latino students show up to kindergarten three months behind their white peers, in terms of their math skills. While they make as much progress throughout the year as the average white student, the achievement gap remains because they started behind.
“One of the best ways to not be behind the starting gate at the beginning of kindergarten is ensuring that we expand and continue to fund high-quality early childhood programs,” said Lina Guzmán, director of the Child Trends’ Hispanic Institute and a co-author of the paper, “Make Math Count More for Young Latino Children.”
Much of the variation in math scores among Latino students can be explained by poverty, and contributing factors include having parents without a post-secondary education and living in a home where English is not the primary language spoken.
The Child Trends study found mitigating factors, too. Children who attend center-based childcare before kindergarten, who have access to more children’s books at home, and whose parents frequently practice numbers with them all tend to have higher math achievement when starting kindergarten.
Students who attend full-day kindergarten programs do better in math and those with stronger executive functioning skills tend to make greater progress throughout the academic year. That’s evidence in support of a strong dual focus on academic as well as social-emotional skills in early childhood programs.
But Latino children may fall prey to biases in testing their skills. For those who show up with all the early math skills they should have, but speak Spanish, teachers might overlook their achievements because they are hidden behind a language barrier. Guzmán said in a phone interview that more schools are paying attention to explicit biases like this and beginning to assess children in both languages to get a true handle on their skill levels and where they need extra support.
Implicit biases are harder to address. Guzmán said teachers have to think hard about how they may be letting stereotypes shape the way they react to or interpret student behavior. For bilingual Latinos this may be particularly important when it comes to assumptions about math proficiency. The Child Trends report found these students are, in fact, even better positioned to excel in math.
“Bilingual children may have an advantage in learning mathematical concepts because, having terms for them in two different languages, they can appreciate that mathematical ideas are abstract, not restricted to a specific terminology,” the paper reads.
The Child Trends report outlines a strong critique of math instruction in early childhood classrooms overall. Co-authors argue “most early childhood classrooms are poorly equipped to help children learn math, and they reflect an underestimation of children’s abilities. Some children even experience a backward slide in their math skills during pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.”
Recommendations for districts include better preparing teachers with ongoing professional development to offer high-quality early math learning experiences, adopting a structured curriculum to teach math, paying attention to the unique needs of bilingual students and their families, adapting instruction to align with students’ cultural backgrounds, promoting social-emotional learning, addressing explicit and implicit biases among educators and school staff members, and engaging families.
Guzmán said it is going to be critical to improve early childhood education programs at the college and university level to prepare future teachers for a strong emphasis on early math. And that work is important for all students, not just Latinos.
Researchers have found very few minutes in a kindergarten day are actually spent on math. International performance among older students in the United States can be traced back, at least partially, to this issue.
“We know the jobs of today and those of the future are going to require STEM skills,” Guzmán said. “If we want a workforce that can meet the demands of today and future jobs, we need to better prepare students for STEM, and early math is a critical part to doing so.”
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