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Fall 2008

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Making magic with early childhood math Julie Sarama and Douglas Clements have developed a program that significantly increases mathematics achievement in pre-kindergarten students. Photo: Douglas Levere, BA '89

Making magic with early childhood math

Couple’s research aims to increase performance in early childhood mathematics

By Charles Anzalone

Those who had come together to celebrate UB’s groundbreaking program to boost math achievements in hard-to-reach pre-kindergarten students recognized the magic in the room. Where it came from depended on whom you asked.

The 4-year-old students at Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center, Buffalo Public School #99, may have thought it sprang from the wizard hat they were passing around.

Joy Christopher, hat-wearer of the moment, looked at the flash card facedown on the floor and tried to tell what number was written on the back. She could call on her X-ray vision (compliments of the wizard hat) and “see” the secret figure that completed the number chain her teacher Lara Lozo had set forth. Or she could use her new mathematics ability to figure out which number must follow in the sequence.

“Do you feel the magical power?” Lozo asks.

The adults looking on saw it in a more down-to-earth way. For them, the real enchantment comes from the proven success of the curriculum designed by Douglas H. Clements and Julie A. Sarama, husband-and-wife research team at UB. It was hard to tell who was more excited: the kids or the grown-ups.

Wherever that magic came from, the June 5 unveiling of the impressive results from Clements and Sarama’s research got the message across loud and clear: Math was challenging, but fun. Furthermore, math class was something these young students wanted to be a part of. And if they and their classmates got to wear a wizard hat, what’s not to like?

“Even my higher-achieving students wouldn’t have been able to identify the numerals by the end of the year,” says Lozo. “But with this new curriculum, you’re constantly asking them to justify their answers, and it makes them think. It’s a fantastic program.”

And while the television cameras rolled and the reporters took notes, the 4-year-olds sitting in the colorful, open classroom at PS 99 played on, providing more evidence of the program’s success. Based on an educational model called TRIAD and a math curriculum called Building Blocks—both developed by Clements and Sarama while at UB’s Graduate School of Education—the program has raised test scores by about 50 percent more than a “business-as-usual” approach (curricula and activities customarily delivered without a deep knowledge of how preschoolers actually learn math). Moreover, these findings were duplicated in public schools in Buffalo and Boston.

Building Blocks is everything children would normally engage in,” says Sarama, associate professor of learning and instruction. “Stories, puzzles, songs, block-building. The key is what the students are being asked. We’re teaching teachers how to ask the appropriate questions and thereby push the children along mathematically in all areas of math, including geometry.”

It was just the latest triumph for Clements’ and Sarama’s project. Nationally, the TRIAD approach answers two urgent needs addressed by President George W. Bush’s National Math Advisory Panel, of which Clements is a member, to improve the way American school teachers teach math.

The first is to increase performance in early childhood mathematics, an area these national experts cited as one of the most pressing priorities in the country’s mathematics education. The second is to develop a curriculum and an approach to implement it that can be “scaled-up,” that is, shown to be effective for a large sample of students.

“A major recommendation of President Bush’s National Math Advisory Panel was to create and evaluate ways of scaling-up effective early childhood mathematics programs,” says Clements, professor of learning and instruction. “This we have done.”

‘Coming out’ party well-covered

Release of results at PS 99 was in a sense a coming-out party for the TRIAD program. The school demonstration received extensive local television, radio and press coverage, including an Associated Press story that ran in the Albany Times-Union and Long Island’s Newsday. Clements and Sarama also have received numerous inquiries from other publications and professionals throughout the country.

“The excitement was shared by all those at Makowski,” says Clements. “And they should be proud—they all played critical roles in this successful project. Buffalo Public school staff at all levels supported this project. And that is the key lesson of our scale-up research—the need for communication and cooperation among all those involved in children’s education. It takes everyone who understands the importance of this collaboration to support fundamental change in educational practice. The message is clear: The approach works when implemented well.”

The TRIAD model, which stands for “technology-enhanced, research-based instruction, assessment and professional development,” features 10 educational principles (including coaching and mentoring for teachers, the use of technology, and enhanced institutional development) that aim to help students achieve more and remember what they learn.

A group of 286 pre-kindergarten students in Buffalo and 94 students in Boston served as a control group. Teachers for the control students used another math curriculum other than Building Blocks that was not taught under the TRIAD model.

All students were tested in fall 2006 and retested in spring 2007 on a variety of math and problem-solving outcomes; they also were interviewed about what they learned. Those in the control group increased their scores by about 100 points, an increase that Clements calls a “large gain—more than double what is often seen around the country.”

But the increases were even higher for those pre-K students exposed to Building Blocks and TRIAD. The increases in their scores were significantly higher than the students in the control groups.

“It would be difficult for any intervention to make a gain above and beyond what the control students showed, and therefore for the TRIAD model to make any difference, but it did,” says Clements. “Therefore, the TRIAD model and Building Blocks curriculum were value-added ingredients in a fairly intense test of whether they made a significant difference for children.”

The work was done under a $7.2 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education. It also was part of the Interagency Educational Research Initiative.

Clements and Sarama will continue to work with the children who completed the TRIAD program. Both say they feel confident the improvement will prove sustainable—lasting over several years—provided schools are willing to continue the TRIAD approach.

“If we work with the kindergarten and the first-grade teachers, the gains these students made in pre-K will be built-upon and increased,” Clements says.

The TRIAD model is especially valuable because it can be used in areas besides mathematics, according to the UB team. “It’s a model that can be applied to reading, fourth-grade science, social studies,” Clements says. “The findings from the TRIAD model can be generalized to other grades and other subjects.”

“The big picture is if a district decides to implement a program and is willing to take the time to do it right,” Sarama says, “you are going to see dramatic results.”

Charles Anzalone is senior editor with University Communications.

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