Early math has been shown to predict not only longer-term math achievement, but also future reading achievement, high school completion, and college attendance. Yet effects from early math programs often fade out as children move into more varied instructional contexts in elementary school. This fade-out suggests the need for an alignment of math instruction across the early years to support children’s earlier math gains.
In 2011, the Robin Hood Foundation began a collaboration with MDRC to rigorously test an approach aimed at boosting early math skills. High 5s, a supplemental small-group math club program for children in kindergarten, was designed specifically as a follow-on to the Making Pre-K Count study, in which preschools implemented an enriched, evidence-based math curriculum (Building Blocks) supported by professional development for teachers. High 5s aligned with Building Blocks by focusing on children’s developmental progression, encouraging hands-on learning, supporting student reflection about mathematical thinking, and using formative assessment (which helps teachers modify their approaches) and instruction differentiated by children’s ability levels. As described in more detail in a companion report, children who were offered two years of enhanced math instruction (High 5s and Making Pre-K Count) had stronger math skills than those who had no enhanced math in pre-K or kindergarten — an impact equivalent to more than four months of growth — as well as more positive attitudes toward math. Given these encouraging findings, this report describes what was needed to implement the High 5s program successfully.
When the project team set out to design a math enrichment program, there were uncertainties about its feasibility: Would schools be receptive? Could an appropriate time and place to hold the clubs be identified? Would children attend regularly and be engaged? Could enough facilitators be hired at a paraprofessional level salary and retained for an entire year? With the support of a strong training and supervision model, all these issues were addressed and the High 5s program met all the benchmarks identified at the outset. Throughout the year, attendance and engagement were high, sessions were held regularly, and activities were implemented as intended by a team of committed facilitators.
All students who were part of the High 5s study also received typical math instruction in their kindergarten classrooms. Classroom instruction was found to differ in a number of ways from the instruction in High 5s: Students participating in High 5s were presented with a wider range and somewhat more advanced instructional content than was observed in classrooms, that content was delivered in a small-group format as opposed to the whole-class format in which most classroom mathematics was delivered, and facilitators engaged in more open-ended questions and more differentiation of material than was observed in classrooms.
These findings suggest that small-group enrichment may be one way to provide kindergarten instruction that is more closely aligned with the pre-K experience, which typically involves a substantial amount of small-group instruction with many hands-on learning opportunities. The math club model may help ensure that children get more individualized instruction, and its alignment with the preschool experience may be one way to help mitigate fade-out of math gains after preschool.