Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Highlights from the Building Strength in Numbers Briefings

By Caroline Ebanks, NCER Program Officer

Young children’s knowledge and understanding of mathematics concepts and their ability to think and apply those concepts in their daily lives are important predictors of early and ongoing school achievement. On Thursday, September 24th and Friday, September 25th, three IES-funded researchers – Dr. Prentice Starkey from WestEd, Dr. Douglas Clements from the University of Denver, and Dr. Hiro Yoshikawa from New York University – came to Washington, D.C. to highlight findings and policy and practice implications from the Institute’s investment in early math research since 2002. They described efficacious early math interventions that have narrowed the achievement gap, improved the pedagogical knowledge and instructional practices of early childhood educators, and changed policy and practice in early childhood programs.  The briefings were arranged for legislative staff on Capitol Hill and officials in the Department of Education by the Friends of IES, a coalition of research organizations that is working to raise the visibility of IES-funded studies.   


  • Dr. Starkey shared his findings about how using the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum with three- and four-year-old children can close the socio-economic gap in math achievement. Findings from two studies awarded in 2002 and 2005 found that the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum had significant, positive impacts on children’s mathematics knowledge, understanding of verbal directions, and persistence in completing a task. The positive impacts of that pre-kindergarten program led Dr. Starkey and his team to test whether receiving two years of math instruction at ages three and four would close the SES-related achievement gap that is often present at kindergarten entry.  The team found that for children who received two years of the intervention, the SES-related gap in mathematical knowledge was closed at the end of preschool but re-opened in kindergarten, suggesting that students need additional math instruction in kindergarten to support early gains. The key message from Dr. Starkey’s presentation is that it is possible to narrow or close the early math achievement gap and help young children succeed in school.

  • Dr. Clements presented findings from three IES-funded studies of the Building Blocks curriculum and the Technology-enhanced, Research-based, Instruction, Assessment, and Professional Development (TRIAD) implementation model. In a 2005 scale-up study, Dr. Clements and colleagues found that the intervention had a significant impact on the mathematical knowledge of children at the end of prekindergarten; and that sustained effects at the end of kindergarten were only seen for children whose kindergarten teachers had received support to provide follow-through instruction for the students during the kindergarten year.  Their most recent study showed that effects were maintained in later grades, especially for African-American children. These findings suggest that pre-k effects don’t fade out, but that elementary schools need to do more to build on children’s entry level skills so as to support their ongoing learning and achievement during the elementary school years.  Reflecting the strong evidence base supporting the Building Blocks curriculum, both Boston Public Schools and New York City are using the Building Blocks curriculum in their preschool classrooms.  Takeaways from Dr. Clements include:
    • a strong professional development model is critical for the implementation of an efficacious curriculum;
    • follow through, building on children’s prior knowledge and skills in the early elementary grades, is essential, especially for children from at-risk backgrounds; and
    • fadeout is not the only option. It is possible to sustain implementation of an intervention over time and maintain effects with follow through.


  • Dr. Yoshikawa described findings from a 2009 IES-funded evaluation study of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) implementation of two efficacious interventions in public prekindergarten classrooms. One of the two interventions was the Building Blocks mathematics curriculum. The school district provided training and ongoing coaching support to teachers to implement the two interventions. The BPS pre-k program had a significant, positive impact on children’s language, literacy, math, and executive function skills (defined as working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility).  All children benefitted from the BPS program, but impacts were larger for children from lower-income families and Latino children. From this study, Dr. Yoshikawa and colleagues learned that a large school district can adopt a program, implement it with fidelity and observe meaningful, positive impacts on a range of academic and social behavioral indicators of children’s school readiness skills.  In current IES-funded work, this team is examining long-term impacts of the BPS program on children’s school achievement in elementary school.


These examples of the Institute’s investment in early math research highlight the role of IES in funding research to improve children’s learning and achievement, and inform early childhood policy and practice. The research has had lasting consequences for the students who participated in the programs and is influencing policy and practice. For example, New York City has adopted the Building Blocks curriculum and the Pre-K Mathematics curriculum is being implemented in prekindergarten classrooms across the state of California.  Additional information about these studies can be found in the What Works Clearinghouse intervention reports for the Building Blocks and Pre-K Mathematics interventions.

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