YEAR 2020

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LIfBi Lecture: When Counting doesn’t Count


In a hybrid LIfBi Lecture on July 19th, Professor Pamela Davis-Kean, University of Michigan, gave an overview of the development of children's mathematical skills in the USA and their impact throughout adulthood. In doing so, she explained why, from her perspective, the  U.S. lags in international rankings and the impact of children's skills from kindergarten age through the end of high school.


For decades, the U.S. has sought to increase the mathematical competencies of US students, which tend to be weak by international standards. This concern has been the focus of several U.S. federal programs and initiatives by funding agencies (NSF, NIH, IES, Gates Foundation). However, the success of these measures fell short of expectations, according to Davis-Kean. In the 2015 PISA study, for example, the US scored 470 in mathematics, ranking 39th internationally and below the OECD average (490). The global pandemic situation and the associated school closures have opened up further gaps in mathematics skills. The importance of these skills, however, is shown by research based on several US and international datasets, which found that early math skills strongly predict later academic success. These skills also have a positive effect on later income.
In her presentation, Professor Davis-Kean gave an overview of her team's research (Human Development and Quantitative Methods Lab [LINK]) on understanding the developmental trajectories of mathematical competencies. They found that differences based on children's social backgrounds are present as early as kindergarten age and remain throughout the school years. This also means that schools do not succeed in compensating for early differences and in supporting children from socially disadvantaged households accordingly. Furthermore, they investigated how families talk about mathematics at home (manner, frequency, length and complexity of utterances). The results showed that this type of talk is generally rare—if it occurs, then it is somewhat more frequent in families with a higher level of education. Moreover, they tend to be initiated by the mother or caregiver, and less by the children themselves. Another interesting finding was that joint or initiated counting (as a basic mathematical skill) is an important precursor but not a particularly good predictor of later mathematics skills. This is because almost all parents count with their children. More advanced skills, such as subtraction and especially understanding and calculating with fractions are more significant in explaining later differences.
Davis-Kean used longitudinal data to examine whether and how early competencies in mathematics are reflected over the course of schooling. This showed a clear connection between mathematic competencies that already exist before children are enrolled in school at the age of 4.5 and their later course choices in high school: Children who have advanced skills in the early years, such as subtracting or dealing with fractions, also take advanced math courses by the end of high school and are more likely to choose to study longer. They also earn more on average in their working lives. Her conclusion: An important step towards improving mathematical skills in the USA would be to expand early support in this area, just as with reading. Parents and educational professionals can contribute—but mathematical thinking, just like reading, is acquired in all contexts.

Link [extern] to the profile of Professor Pamela Davis Kean at the University of Michigan