Learning Math, Ready or Not
My kindergarten readiness posts met with some disagreement from readers, who responded that if children can’t complete the tasks on readiness tests, then they’re not mature enough to learn in a classroom.
I’d like to ask those readers how they explain the success of Building Blocks, a federally-funded preschool curriculum based on neuroscience research. This program takes four-year-olds who, by the customary measures, aren’t ready to learn math:
In one videotaped exam, a 4-year-old boy in a FUBU jersey and long dreadlocks who entered P.S. 99 in 2006 was unable to count or match cards with 3, 5, 2, 1 and 4 on them to cards with equivalent numbers of grapes.
And it teaches them, along with addition and subtraction, math concepts like quantity and cardinality that most schools don’t introduce until students are certifiably ready kindergartners. They learn it, averaging 26 percentile points higher on math tests than their peers who didn’t participate in Building Blocks. A year later, the Building Blocks kids are still ahead by an average of 21 percentile points.
It’s always exciting when you find an intervention that works. But I’m not surprised that the four-year-olds were able to learn, with the right program. Because unlike Building Blocks, kindergarten readiness tests are not based on neuroscience. The “research” behind them consists of not-always-strong correlations between kindergartners who couldn’t tie their shoes and later academic problems. They’re like the personality tests some companies have tried giving employees, reasoning that if the last star employee answered the questions a certain way, maybe the next one will too.
Building Blocks’ creators took the right approach to teaching students who were considered unready. They didn’t wait for them to catch up on their own, which probably would have set them further behind. And they didn’t waste time developing unrelated skills to satisfy a testing requirement. Instead, they developed a curriculum that teaches math despite students’ supposed unpreparedness.
Districts like Fulton Public Schools would do well to learn from Building Blocks and stop asking, “Are the kindergartners ready to learn?” A better question is, “Are we ready to teach them?”