Why Kids Need Early STEM and Early Math in Particular

By Ted Lempert

Research shows that children’s early knowledge of math strongly predicts their later success in math, even into high school, and that persistent problems with math is the best predictor of failing to graduate from high school or enter college. More surprising is that early math also predicts later reading achievement, even better than early reading skills. In fact, doing more math in preschool increases oral language abilities when measured during the following school year. Given the importance of math to academic success, it’s clear that all children need a robust knowledge of math in their earliest years.

Unfortunately, one needs only to look at the data to see that we’re not doing enough to help our kids succeed in math. In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only 29 percent of California’s 4th graders performed at or above proficient in math, compared to 39 percent nationally. Moreover, our students made virtually no improvement between 2013 and 2015. Alarmingly, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. When we look at California’s 8th graders, according to NAEP, only 27 percent performed at or above proficient in math, compared to 32 percent nationally. The disparities are even greater for kids of color. The gap in math proficiency between Caucasian and African-American 4th graders was 23 points and grew to 31 points by the 8th grade.

The 2017 Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project report reaffirms the NAEP data, as well as the research documenting the importance of math. As the report states, 8th grade math proficiency is an important predictor for college preparedness and professional opportunities. Yet, even in the Silicon Valley, only 53 percent of 8th graders met or exceeded the state standards for math proficiency in 2016. While this is better than the state as a whole, when one looks at the performance of African-American and Latino 8th graders in the Silicon Valley, only 24 percent and 25 percent, respectively, met or exceeded the state standards for math proficiency.

What can we do about this?

We need to raise the profile and understanding among decision makers of the importance of early math, and early STEM education more broadly, through advocacy and outreach. We need to make the case that investing in early math and early STEM education pays off in terms later math achievement and academic success.

Children Now has posited that one of the central goals of any national or state education policy agenda must be to provide more students, especially those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, access to high-quality STEM education, and math in particular, as early in their studies as possible. More specifically, we should promote early learning and development within the local planning and budgeting dialogues required by the Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control Accountability Plans. We need to provide more resources for teacher training and professional development so our teachers are well prepared in both content and pedagogy to provide high-quality math and STEM instruction in their classrooms. And, we need to promote improved pathways for parents’ and families’ involvement and engagement in their children’s early education.


Ted Lempert is the President of Children Now, a nonpartisan umbrella research, policy development, and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health, education and well-being in California. Children Now also leads The Children’s Movement of California, a grassroots network of more than 2,000 business, education, parent, civil rights, faith, and community-based organizations working together to make children a top priority in public policy. Learn more at www.childrennow.org.