Improving math education for the littlest learners

Erikson Institute teaches preschool teachers: math is more than counting and shapes.

May 24, 2011

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Mr. Alligator eats a monkey, to the delight of Corkery Elementary preschoolers. The rhyme teaches children basic math concepts.
Head Start teacher Maria Viteri says she uses any opportunity she can to teach math. (WBEZ/ Linda Lutton)
Erikson Institute professors use common materials to help Chicago preschool teachers explore the properties of a number.

Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. lag behind students in nearly 30 other countries in math.

Some believe that mediocre performance can be traced back to preschool, where many kids aren’t even exposed to math.

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton reports on one effort to improve math instruction for Chicago’s littlest learners.

VITERI/STUDENTS: Five little monkeys swinging on a tree, teasing Mr. Alligator, can’t catch me! You can’t catch me! Along comes Mr. Alligator sneaky as can be…

For the three and four-year-olds sitting on the blue rug at Daniel Corkery Elementary school in Little Village, this rhyme is all about the thrill: the alligator in their teacher’s right hand eating up the monkeys in her left hand—one by one.

[Snap! Four! ¡Se lo comiό!]

For teacher Maria Viteri, it’s about imparting fundamental math concepts: subtraction, mathematical patterns, notions of less and more. 

Viteri used to be at a loss when it came to teaching math.  

VITERI: I would just have them roll count. I didn’t know what else to expose. I was just a beginning a teacher so I’m like, ‘How do I do math? Where do I begin?’

Preschool educators learn methods for teaching young children in general, but they rarely get training specific to mathematics, says Jie-Qi Chen, a researcher at Erikson Institute in Chicago.

CHEN: So our teachers are not well prepared. As such, they don’t spend enough time to teach math, they feel less prepared, and they have math phobia. Some people say, ‘The reason I’m coming to teach early childhood education—young children— is because I can escape from teaching math and science.’

A new state study shows Illinois preschoolers improve in language and social skills, but not math.  An Erikson survey found that only 1 in 5 Chicago preschool classrooms did math on any given day. Trying to counter that, Erikson has trained nearly 300 preschool teachers in math, including Viteri. She says it’s made a huge difference in her Head Start classroom.

VITERI:  For example, zero. I would never introduce zero, because I didn’t think zero was important. Now they know it’s empty, nothing. They tell me, ‘Nada, nada.”
Ambi: “Cero!! Zero!”

New research shows that even the nation’s most advantaged kids are not competitive internationally in math. And students like those in Viteri’s classroom—all low-income, mostly from immigrant families—are even further behind.

CHEN: And this achievement gap starts early, starts very, very young—before children even enter into kindergarten.

Hanging on Chen’s office wall is a photograph of her own  preschool graduation… It’s China, 1962.

CHEN: Teachers in early childhood education in China seem to have a more profound understanding of the basic mathematics concepts than what we have here.

Erikson’s trainings emphasize these big ideas  in math, the ones that form the foundation for all math education. It’s a lot more than counting and shapes, it turns out. It includes geometry and algebraic concepts like patterns and sets, and what a number even is—which can be hard to get your head around sometimes if you’re only three.

Chen says there’s lots of math embedded in preschool classrooms—and plenty of materials. But teachers need to recognize the math and help kids notice it too.

CHEN: For instance, Goldilocks with the Three Bears—everybody knows this story. Three bears with Goldilocks. That includes lots of ideas about sets. A set of bowls, a set of tables, a set of bears. And also patterns. Large, medium small. 

Viteri now works math into everything she does.

VITERI: My attendance, please!

Every day, her students tally boys and girls.

VITERI: Let me look at my number chart. Who has more, the girls or the boys?

If a kid is holding two objects, Viteri invariably asks which is heavier, which is lighter.

VITERI: Big, small. Long, short. 

Recently, Viteri’s students compared two familiar names. Not by looking at them, but by measuring them, using little counting cubes to represent each letter.

VITERI: Which one has more—Cinderella or Luis?
STUDENTS: Cinderella!
VITERI: Mira, Luis tiene poquitos!

Erikson last year won a competitive $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand its work. They’ll begin training all teachers third grade and below in eight Chicago schools in the fall. The hope is to chart rising math scores at those schools.