Preschool Math Skill Predicts Success
Controversial Study Says Math, Reading Skills Matter More Than Behavior
Child Experts Disagree
WebMD asked two child development experts -- both of whom recently published
studies on school readiness -- to comment on the Duncan study. Both were highly
critical of the study and of Duncan's conclusions.
Psychologist Clancy Blair, PhD, is associate professor of human development
and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
"Duncan and his colleagues are brilliant people, but their conclusions
are built on feet of clay," Blair tells WebMD. "Their finding that
behavioral measures did not correlate with later academic success is contrary
to other data. They mainly focused on behavior problems. They did not tap into
behaviors more related to school readiness."
Psychologist Megan McClelland, PhD, associate professor of human development
and family sciences at Oregon State University, agrees with Blair that the
Duncan paper failed to measure important aspects of children's behavioral and
"Finding out that the skills you start out with predict the skills you
end up with is not very interesting," McClelland tells WebMD. "Other
studies, which find that children's improvement in self-regulation prior to
kindergarten predicts later academic skills, are much more compelling."
Teaching School Readiness
Neither Blair nor McClelland has a problem with teaching preschoolers basic
math and reading skills -- if it's done the right way.
"Drill 'em, kill 'em," Blair says. "Flash cards, the old
this-is-a-square, this-is-a-triangle -- that didactic stuff is poison. Parents
must manufacture situations where children take on challenges just at or above
their ability -- puzzling out words or letters or drawing a picture. If parents
make it fun, kids develop self-regulatory abilities from this sense of
McClelland argues that children can't learn math or reading if they can't
sit still and can't remember.
"Parents can make sure their children can sit still when they need to,
that they can work independently and also in a group. Those are the skills that
are going to set you up to be successful in life, because you follow
through," she says. "Can you work independently? Can people depend on
you? To do well on a math test you have to have these skills. Parents should
focus on whether their children can play well with other kids, and on whether
they have some self-regulation and persistence on tasks."
Duncan does not advocate preschool calculus classes. But he insists that his
study points to the need for research into the best ways to improve
preschoolers' early math and reading skills.
"It would be very interesting to see if reading and math interventions
affected math and reading much later on -- to see if more complicated skills in
third grade are boosted as well," he says. "We need to have a
cupboard-full of evaluations of the various curricula that extend beyond the
end of the programs themselves to see if there are lingering improvements in
what kids learn."