Preschool Math Skill Predicts Success
Controversial Study Says Math, Reading Skills Matter More Than Behavior
Nov. 12, 2007 -- A hotly controversial study shows that preschool math and
reading skills predict later academic success, but behavioral problems and
social skills don't.
Northwestern University economist Greg Duncan, PhD, and colleagues analyzed
data from six long-term studies of school readiness. The studies measured kids'
math and reading skills and various aspects of behavior both before entering
school at age 5 or 6 and later, during early or middle elementary school.
"The study was pretty surprising -- all six studies showed the
importance first of math skills, and second of reading skills," Duncan
tells WebMD. "But most surprising was that the association we expected
between behavior problems and lack of social skills and later learning seems to
Duncan, now president-elect of the Society for Research on Child
Development, was a member of a National Academies of Science panel that in 2000
reviewed the science of early childhood development. That panel came to a very
different conclusion. It found that school readiness depends just as much on
social and emotional skills as on thinking skills.
"I was never really convinced by the studies that show social and
emotional behaviors to be more important than cognitive skills," Duncan
In their study of the kindergarten skills that predict later academic
success, Duncan and colleagues found that math skills were by far the greatest
predictor of success. Kids who had mastered basic math skills before entering
kindergarten were much more likely than other kids to do well not only in math,
but also in reading.
Early math skills were twice as strong a predictor of academic success as
were reading skills. But like kids with good math skills, preschoolers with
good reading skills later did well in both math and reading. Math skills were
three times as strong a predictor of future success as ability to pay
attention, the only behavioral or social skill to show an effect in the Duncan
"We don't really know why behavioral variables do not affect later
achievement," Duncan says. "But for kids with a given set of reading
and math skills, it just doesn't seem that behavior problems give them a net