Young Kids in Low-Income Families Get Less Exposure to Math. Can the...

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Young Kids in Low-Income Families Get Less Exposure to Math. Can the Right Apps Help?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Aug 30, 2023

Young Kids in Low-Income Families Get Less Exposure to Math. Can the Right Apps Help?

This article is part of the guide: Recalculating Math Instruction.

Recent public debates have focused a spotlight on K-12 math pathways. But there’s been less attention paid to what math skills students need early in life, to set them up for elementary school in the first place.

For early learners, exposure to math concepts can be at the mercy of their family’s economic status or related factors like whether their parents are college-educated. That’s why one group of researchers asked what can be done to close the cognitive development distance that opens between children from high- and low-income families, which they argue is a watershed in equality of opportunity.

The resultant randomized controlled trial, “Boosting Parent-Child Math Engagement and Preschool Children’s Math Skills,” tried to hoist up the math skills of children ages 3 through 5 in Chicago. These 758 students — who were enrolled in Head Start programs or other publicly subsidized preschools — were from low-income families. Study participants were split into groups that received different educational materials. For some parents, researchers loaded up tablets with vetted apps designed to teach math skills, and then handed them to the families and walked away for six months, says Ariel Kalil, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy. Some parents received analog games designed to convey math skills, while others received a storybook. Researchers sent text reminders to some parents to use the materials they received.

The result? Some of it worked really well. There was no noted effect at the end of the original treatment, which lasted 12 weeks. But when researchers came back six months later, kids who had been using the apps saw math skills increase by 0.2 standard deviations, according to the report — an improvement bigger than students typically see after one year in a Head Start program. Groups that were given analog games and parental messaging saw improvements, too.

Another result: Girls got a bigger skills bump from the tablets than boys. That’s likely related to the fact that girls develop quicker in general, and can be able to self-regulate in younger years, Kalil speculates.

But there was another, unexpected finding.

The digital tools facilitated parent-child interactions, Kalil says in an interview, making the time spent more fun and efficient — just better overall.

In her work studying the differences in cognitive development between early learners from low-income families and their high-income counterparts, Kalil has noticed that the outcomes are more about the parents than the students. To improve children’s learning, interventions either have to increase the amount of time parents spend with their kids, or make the actual learning process more efficient, she says.

While it’s common for parents to read bedtime stories to their children, it’s less common for them to solve bedtime equations. Kalil came into this particular study believing that you can’t dramatically increase the amount of time parents devote to imparting math skills. But, in this latest research, parents reported spending more math time with their kids, thanks in part to the apps — “much to our surprise and great interest,” Kalil says.

In short, while the researchers thought that they were preparing the apps to substitute for the parents, they were actually preparing the tech tools to complement the efforts of parents.

The Price Is Right

By kindergarten, young children are supposed to learn quite a lot of math skills. That includes knowing how to count, understanding differences in quantities and knowing how to measure things. They also need to have some comprehension of shapes, spatial relations and patterns.

How well their young minds have managed to capture these concepts foretells whether they will be successful in their academic careers. In no small part, that’s because there’s a strong link between these skills and later-in-life math and reading abilities.

So the stakes are high.

For researchers like Kalil, the real question is: Will math apps actually prepare all early learners to be ready for kindergarten numeracy? Establishing that apps can help is only the first step in lifting math abilities.

Nevertheless, the kinds of solutions the researchers considered had another virtue: affordability. Apps are cheap and can be widely distributed, Kalil says, an important feature for any prospective solution to widespread inequalities. That’s exciting, she adds.

However, reliance on edtech introduces further questions.

Wheat and Chaff

The study required identifying effective apps. And the number of quality math apps available to the researchers — who chose to focus on apps in both English and Spanish, since Chicago has a high number of Spanish speakers — was limited. In the end, the researchers selected seven applications that they felt struck a balance between being engaging to students and also prompting them to learn. These largely focused on counting, number recognition and patterns.

Knowing what works in edtech is difficult. And in contrast to these researchers, the average early childhood education program, or the typical parent, may not be capable of rigorously appraising apps. That means that getting high-quality math apps in front of early learners will require more studies, to show which applications catalyze actual learning.

It’s something researchers such as Kalil are thinking about.

“There are shockingly few randomized controlled trials in a significantly meaningful population that really test what is working,” Kalil says, adding that there’s a lot of “nonsense that you just shouldn’t believe about what works and what doesn’t.”

Other researchers would agree. Previous studies have suggested that only 26 of the 100 most popular edtech apps have published research that aligns to federal standards from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Far fewer of those reach the final tier, having “strong evidence.”

It’s also not clear whether these solutions would suffer from the edtech “drop off,” the phenomenon that sees learning benefits decline because people simply stop using the technology, Kalil says.

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