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The IERI Research Community :: Projects

The Early Development of Mathematical Cognition in Socioeconomic and Cultural Contexts

Prentice Starkey

Alice Klein


Background: There is a growing need for greater mathematics achievement by American students. However, many children, especially those from economically disadvantaged families enter school with less developed mathematical knowledge than their more privileged peers, and the gap increases through grade school. Research has shown that children must construct a critical foundation of informal mathematical knowledge during the early childhood years if they are to enter school ready to learn a rigorous, standards-based mathematics curriculum.

Purpose Our project seeks to understand how different cultures and, within cultures, how families from different socioeconomic or educational levels support children's early mathematical development. Three longitudinal studies were conducted (1) to compare the development of mathematical cognition in 600 three- to six-year-old American, Chinese, and Japanese children, and (2) to investigate how each of these cultures support children's early mathematical development in different learning environments including preschool and kindergarten classrooms and the home. To study within-culture variation in each country, we included equal numbers of children from lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Setting: Young children's homes and preschool and kindergarten classrooms in China, Japan, and the United States.

Research Design: We employed a cross-sequential design with cohorts of 3-year-olds (Cohort 1) and 4-year-olds (Cohort 2) who were followed longitudinally for two years. Children's early mathematical development was investigated by administering the Child Math Assessment, an instrument we developed for assessing informal mathematical knowledge. A comprehensive account of the nature and extent of support provided for children's early mathematical development was obtained through converging measures, including (1) classroom observations and surveys of math practices by teachers and parents, (2) information on teachers and parents ethno-theories about mathematical development and readiness, and (3) videotapes of classrooms and home learning environments.

Specific methodologies included (1) cross-sectional, (2) longitudinal, (3) correlational, (4) observational, (5) survey (questionnaire), and (6) videography.

The study sample included 600 three- to six-year-old American, Chinese, and Japanese children, half from lower socioeconomic families and half from higher socioeconomic families. Survey data were collected from children's parents and teachers.

Several instruments were created or developed further for this project:

  • Starkey, P., & Klein, A. (2000). Parent Checklist of Home Mathematics Activities. (Instrument developed initially for Cross-Cultural Math Project for assessing the nature and amount of mathematics support provided for young children by parents at home.)
  • Klein, A. & Starkey, P. (2000). Child Math Assessment (CMA). (Instrument developed for assessing children's early mathematical knowledge.)
  • Starkey, P., & Klein, A. (2001). Early Mathematics Classroom Observation (EMCO). (Instrument developed for categorizing and measuring mathematics instruction by preschool and kindergarten teachers.)
  • Starkey, P., & Klein, A. (2001). Numeracy Environment Checklist (NEC). (Instrument developed for categorizing and rating mathematics materials in preschool and kindergarten classrooms.)

Data analysis is still underway.

Children's Mathematical Development. Significant inter- and intra-cultural group differences in mathematical development were evident during the preschool years. Chinese and Japanese children had developed more extensive knowledge than their American peers. Intra-cultural variation favoring children from higher SES families was found in each country but was most pronounced in the United States. Group differences appeared surprisingly early, by age 3 years.

The Home Learning Environment. Since group differences were already present when most children entered preschool, the home learning environment was considered a likely source of these differences. In all three countries math activities were undertaken more frequently by young children in higher SES homes than in low SES homes, and parenting practices varied with family SES. Differences in parenting practices were in turn related to differences in parents ethno-theories about school readiness. For example, higher SES American and Japanese parents expressed a belief that they were at least as responsible as their preschool teacher for preparing their child for school mathematics, whereas low SES parents believed preschool teachers bore more responsibility.

The Preschool Learning Environment. Measures of children's classroom learning environments revealed both inter- and intra-cultural differences in the amount of support provided for mathematical learning. American preschool programs in general did not utilize a systematic, standards-based mathematics curriculum, whereas. Chinese programs did utilize such a curriculum. In the United States, Head Start and California state-funded programs for low-income families provided fewer minutes of teacher-guided math support per day than private programs serving higher income families.

These studies are enabling us to map specific relationships between children's mathematical learning environments and their concomitant mathematical development. The findings are revealing the age by which group differences appear in early mathematical development, and ways in which the development of early mathematical knowledge can be supported. These results have implications for theories of early mathematical development as well as for early childhood education practice and policy.

A videotape has been made as part of this project:
Starkey, P. & Klein, A. (2006). Early Mathematical Development in China, Japan, and the United States.

A book reporting project findings is in preparation.