New Findings Show That Aligned, Math-Focused Interventions in Pre-K and Kindergarten Reduce the Achievement Gap

Contacts: John Hutchins, MDRC, 212-340-8604, [email protected]

(New York, March 6, 2018) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released encouraging results today from a demonstration, funded by Robin Hood, of two aligned interventions in New York City: Making Pre-K Count, a high-quality math curriculum in preschools, and High 5s, supplemental small-group “math clubs” provided to kindergartners outside of regular instructional time. Together, the two years of math instruction closed more than one-quarter of the achievement gap in math skills between low-income children and their higher-income peers.

Early math skills are a strong predictor of later achievement for young children; exhibiting strong math skills in elementary school is predictive of high school completion and college attendance. However, effects from early childhood programs have sometimes faded, suggesting the need for aligned instruction in kindergarten.

These demonstrations and evaluations were designed as part of the Robin Hood Early Childhood Research Initiative, which was established to identify and rigorously test promising early childhood interventions. The initiative is a partnership between Robin Hood, one of the country’s leading antipoverty organizations based in New York City, and MDRC. Making Pre-K Count and High 5s are also supported with lead funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Richard W. Goldman Family Foundation. The programs were conducted in partnership with Bank Street College, which implemented the coaching for teachers and facilitation of High 5s clubs; RTI International; and the New York City Department of Education and Administration for Children’s Services.

What Are Making Pre-K Count and High 5s?

Beginning in 2013, the Making Pre-K Count program provided pre-K teachers in New York City public schools and community-based organizations with a high-quality math curriculum called Building Blocks and ongoing teacher training and coaching over two years. Building Blocks, developed by Drs. Doug Clements and Julie Sarama, is a 30-week, evidence-based curriculum designed to take into account children’s natural developmental progression in math understanding and skills — for example, numeracy, measurement, and geometry. Teachers received 11 days of training and met with coaches two to four times a month over the two years.

The High 5s kindergarten supplement was created to help children continue to develop their mathematical understanding by offering another year of aligned math instruction to children in public schools who had received Making Pre-K Count in pre-K. High 5s paired three to four children with one facilitator for math clubs that met three times a week for 30 minutes each. The clubs offered math enrichment in a setting outside of regular classroom instruction, using engaging, developmentally appropriate activities.

What Did the Study Find?

This report from MDRC’s random assignment study looks at results at the end of the children’s kindergarten year. The highlights are:

The impact of Making Pre-K Count alone: One year after participating in the pre-k program, when children were in their kindergarten year, they had slightly better math scores (although this finding was sensitive to how the outcome was measured), as well as better attitudes towards math and better working memory than children who were not in the pre-k program. These positive effects were both encouraging and somewhat surprising because they did not align with findings at the end of pre-K. The findings in pre-K may have been due in part to “business as usual” pre-K classrooms that formed the study’s comparison group receiving substantially more math instruction than historically had been the case in New York City’s pre-k programs.

The impact of Making Pre-K Count and High 5s combined: The effect of both programs (Making Pre-K Count in pre-k and High 5s in kindergarten) was equivalent to closing 29 percent of the math achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers on one of two measures of math achievement. (The effect of High 5s accounted for closing 18 percent of the achievement gap.)

“These encouraging findings from Making Pre-K Count and High 5s clearly suggest that providing young children with aligned, developmentally informed math instruction can help narrow the achievement gap in the near term,” said Gordon Berlin, MDRC president. “To provide hard evidence about the role of math as a foundational skill, MDRC and its partners will continue to follow these children into elementary school to find out whether effects are maintained as they move into new instructional environments.”

“We’re proud that we’ve played a central role in convening our partners to undertake these important studies,” said Deb McCoy, managing director of early childhood and youth programs at Robin Hood. 

“We’ve long known education is the surest path out of poverty and that high-quality early learning is the foundational step on that path. What these promising new findings highlight is that well-crafted, developmentally appropriate math instruction provided in the early years, including kindergarten, may be a key lever for long-term academic success and ultimately for economic self-sufficiency.  We very much look forward to the results from the studies’ follow-up of participants to third grade, when we will know much more about the full potential of these interventions.”

“Longitudinal studies of early childhood programs suggest that high-quality preschool experiences lay the foundation for lasting educational benefits,” said Barbara Chow, director of the education program at the Heising-Simons Foundation. “The encouraging, statistically significant results from the Making Pre-K Count program and the High 5s supplement suggest a path forward to boost early math skills and, potentially, longer-term academic achievement of children from low-income families.”

“The findings from the study come from our partnership with Robin Hood and Heising-Simons to find and scale evidence-based ideas that improve educational outcomes, particularly around early math,” said Anu Malipatil, director of the Overdeck Family Foundation. “While we are optimistic about the gains made by students participating in the Making Pre-K Count and High 5s interventions, we look forward to the follow-up findings and cost-benefit analysis to determine the potential for longer-term scalability.”

“These results are promising and emphasize the critical nature of high-quality math instruction and support in early childhood programs,” said Stepha Krynytzky, deputy executive director of teaching and learning, New York City Department of Education.

“These data show that we can narrow the achievement gap if we implement play-based, hands-on math curriculum that is sustained from pre-K programs into early elementary school,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education. “Bank Street coaches are proud to be deeply involved in the in-classroom support and training of educators, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to help children develop strong early math skills.” 

What’s Next for Making Pre-K Count and High 5s?

MDRC’s study will continue to follow children into third grade to better understand the long-term effects of these early math programs. In addition, MDRC and its partners are looking for opportunities to replicate and adapt the High 5s program in different settings and contexts.

Two new reports are available for free download on the MDRC website:

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Headquartered in New York City and Oakland, CA, MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with more than 40 years of experience designing and evaluating education and social policy initiatives.

Robin Hood, New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization, finds, funds, and creates over 200 of the most effective programs, to help 1.8 million New Yorkers learn and earn their way out of poverty.