building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”

 

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.