Math Is Powerful

By Patte Barth

Educators and parents have long known the importance of early literacy to preschoolers’ later academic success. What they may not know is that their math skills are equally important.

A major study shows that young children’s math abilities are far more predictive of their academic achievement throughout their school years than their social or emotional behaviors, neither of which, it turns outs, has much effect on later achievement. Math also has a slight edge on literacy in its long-term influence.

The research team, led by Northwest­ern University’s Greg Duncan, analyzed six studies including data for more than 35,000 preschoolers. The team found that knowledge of numbers had the most impact on students’ academic achievement through age 14, followed closely by early reading and language skills.

Math-related skills do not just predict later math performance, but reading achievement, too. Moreover, early mastery has a lasting impact. Duncan found that students who struggled with math in elementary school were less likely to graduate from high school and far less likely to attend college later on, by 13 and 29 percentage points, respectively.

Mathematical development in fact starts in infancy. Psychologists such as Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley, are showing that babies are natural statisticians who use data to make sense of the world. In one study, 2-year-olds were able to infer probabilities -- for example, the likelihood a toy will light up -- and revise predictions based on new information. Other studies have identified babies as young as 8 months showing a basic understanding of random sampling.

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