New Technique Developed at UB for Teaching Math to Preschoolers 'Adds Up'

Release Date: June 5, 2008

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Julie Sarama and Douglas Clements have developed a program that significantly increases mathematics achievement in pre-kindergarten students.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A program designed by University at Buffalo researchers to increase mathematics achievement in pre-kindergarten students has proven successful in a large-scale study in Buffalo and Boston.

The program, based on an educational model called TRIAD and including the Building Blocks math curriculum, raised test scores by about 50 percent more than the "business-as-usual" approach.

The study addresses two urgent needs identified by President Bush's National Math Advisory Panel to improve the way American schools teach math. The first is to increase performance in early childhood mathematics, an area the 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," or shown effective for a large sample of students.

"A major recommendation of President Bush's National Math Advisory Panel (NMP) was to create and evaluate ways of scaling-up effective early childhood mathematics programs. This we have done," says Douglas H. Clements, a member of the NMP and a professor of learning and instruction in the Graduate School of Education. Clements designed the program with Julie A. Sarama, associate professor of learning and instruction.

A total of 662 students in Buffalo and 267 students in Boston were taught using the Building Blocks curriculum. Developed by Clements and Sarama, it stresses research-based instruction that helps teachers understand the way young children think about math and how that thought process develops. A second group of students began taking this curriculum a year later in Nashville, Tenn.; the results of this study are still pending.

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.

This math curriculum was taught under the TRIAD model, which stands for "technology-enhanced, research-based instruction, assessment and professional development." The TRIAD model 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. Those in the control group increased their scores by about 100 points, an increase that Clements called 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.

"They gained even more," says Clements. "They moved up 150 points. Those are very large gains."

The study produced some clear conclusions, according to the UB researchers.

The 100-point increase for students in the control group showed students can learn substantial mathematics in the early years if a school district commits to the importance of mathematics education.

But the 150-point jump for students studying under Building Blocks and TRIAD showed these specific programs developed by UB researchers can make an even bigger difference. "The big picture is if a district decides to implement a program and is willing to take the time to do it right, you are going to see dramatic results," says Sarama.

"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 TRIAD model is especially valuable because it can be used in areas in addition to 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 UB researchers plan to continue working with these children and will assess their growth in coming years.

Clements says he believes the results shown in this study 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 University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system that is its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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