Why Math Might Be The Secret To School Success : NPR Ed A new study is focusing on what works best to prepare kids for school. Math may be what really counts, say researchers; one of them describes it as "a lever to improve outcomes for kids longer term."

Why Math Might Be The Secret To School Success

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The White House holds a summit this week on early childhood education, and that brings to mind an eternal truth. Everybody is in favor of kids and education.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Well, let's be a little more precise. Everybody is in favor of platitudes about supporting kids and education.

INSKEEP: It's a bit trickier to define exactly what adults can do to help kids get ahead. And today, we report on a study that tries to identify that.

MONTAGNE: It's a nine-year study conducted in New York. The central question - what can you teach preschoolers that will make a difference when they're older?

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports the answer may be as simple as one two three.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN COUNTING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One. Two. Three. Four.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: At PS 43 in Far Rockaway, Queens, 14 4-year-olds are using their whole bodies to count. This is a radical departure from how math is usually taught.

DOUG CLEMENTS: Most teachers, of course, have been through our United States mathematics education. So they tend to think of math as just skills. They tend to think of it as a quiet activity where you pull out paper, and you write all your facts down.

KAMENETZ: Doug Clements at the University of Denver is the creator of Building Blocks - the math curriculum at the heart of this new study. Building Blocks math, he says, is designed to be exciting, fun and loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Yelling) Rectangle.

GAYLE CONIGLIARO: It's a rectangle. It's not a square?

MULTIPLE UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Yelling) No. Rectangle.

CONIGLIARO: Aren't all rectangles squares?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Yelling) No.

CONIGLIARO: No, they're not?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A square is a special rectangle.

CONIGLIARO: That's terrific.

KAMENETZ: PS 43 is one of 69 low-income schools around New York City chosen for this randomized, controlled trial. Half will try Building Blocks, and the other half are a control group. The study is funded by the Robin Hood Foundation. They set out to find what interventions work best for pulling young children out of poverty.

Pamela Morris with research group MDRC is the study's lead investigator. She drew on new findings that say math knowledge at the beginning of elementary school is the single strongest predictor of whether a student will graduate high school.

PAMELA MORRIS: Children who do well in math in preschool do better not only in math but also in their reading skills later on such that math might be sort of a lever to improve outcomes for kids longer-term.

KAMENETZ: But, says Doug Clements, the designer of Building Blocks, there's a problem in pre-K.

CLEMENTS: How much time did the average kid spend on mathematics a day in a five-hour day? Fifty-eight seconds.

KAMENETZ: Not with Building Blocks. Here, kids encounter math games, computer programs, toys, activities.

CLEMENTS: We want kids running around the classroom and bumping into mathematics at every turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATH LESSON)

CONIGLIARO: If you think this is a shape, raise your hand and tell me its name. Caliegha (ph).

CALIEGHA: It's a circle.

CONIGLIARO: It is. How do you know it's a circle?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It goes around and around.

KAMENETZ: How do you know? When the teacher, Gayle Conigliaro, asks this, she's getting the kids to think about their own thinking. That's a skill called meta-cognition. Explaining your reasoning out loud also develops verbal ability.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATH LESSON)

CONIGLIARO: You know what? The rhombus...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A trapezoid.

CONIGLIARO: You remembered so nicely. Good job. Give me a high-five. Nice work.

KAMENETZ: This $25-million study will follow the children all the way through third grade, looking for an impact on test scores and higher-order thinking skills. But Conigliaro, a 24-year veteran teacher, says she's already convinced.

CONIGLIARO: I just feel like the aha moment. This is what teaching should be. And we would just like it - be a research-based program - so that we can give our kids the best.

KAMENETZ: Just a few months into the school year, she says, the kids' progress amazes her every day. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.

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