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This strategy could help younger at-risk students master math

Gaps in math achievement start early, but certain instructional approaches could close those gaps for disadvantaged students

Low-income minority kindergartners learn math better when taught in small groups, according to a new report from University of Michigan (U-M) researchers.

This type of instructional approach not only has a positive impact on achievement, but can help bridge the gap with higher-income peers, the researchers say in a report.

Robin Jacob, co-director of the U-M Youth Policy Lab, and Brian Jacob, professor of education and public policy, evaluated 655 kindergarten students in the one-year math enrichment High 5s program in 24 low-income elementary schools in New York City.

The High 5s program aims to provide a consistent instructional approach and alignment of content from the pre-K math curriculum to kindergarten, and it is designed as a hands-on program to engage young students.

They discovered that students who participated in the program received 30 percent more time on math instruction with more individualized attention, and were exposed to a wider range of advanced math topics and more interactive activities.

Researchers were able to pinpoint a variety of ways the High 5s program helped students strengthen their math skills:

1. High5s students received an additional 75 minutes of math instruction compared to students in the control group—an increase of about 30 percent.

2. The High5s program used a different instructional approach. Students in the kindergarten control classrooms worked mostly in whole-group instruction or completed seat work, while High5s students worked in small group activities using interactive approaches and a variety of manipulatives. They also learned slightly more advanced mathematical topics, along with a wider range of topics in general.

3. Instructional climates differed, too, and students seemed to enjoy High5s math activities, with facilitators in those activities more likely to ask open-ended questions, encourage reflection, and differentiate instruction.

The achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers is already noticeable in kindergarten, and it widens over time. Early intervention is one way to address that gap.

The report references past research showing that math skills are closely related to later math achievement, reading achievement, high school completion, and college attendance.

“By intervening early, the High 5s program narrowed the achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers at the end of kindergarten,” says Robin Jacob.

Students enrolled in the High 5s program met in groups of four, with a trained facilitator, for 30 minutes three times a week. Activities were delivered in a game-like format and intended to be fun, engaging, interactive, and developmentally appropriate.

At the end of kindergarten, student math achievement was analyzed on two different measures:the Woodcock-Johnson applied problems subscale and REMA-K. The students in High 5s scored higher than the control students on the REMA-K.

The effect of the program was equivalent to about two-and-a half months of learning on the assessment, the researchers said.

The U-M researchers are now working to develop a model for such small-group instruction that requires fewer resources and could be more easily scaled.

“To date, there has been very little research about the effectiveness of small group math instruction in the early elementary school grades,” Jacob adds. “This study demonstrates that well implemented, engaging, small group instruction in math has the potential to boost math achievement.”

The Youth Policy Lab, a collaboration between the Ford School of Public Policy and the Institute for Social Research, partnered with MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, for this research.

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