Latino Kindergarteners Start School 3 Months Behind in Math on Average


A recent report finds that Latino children’s math skills trail those of white children by three months at the start of kindergarten.

The report, “Making Math Count More for Young Latino Children,” issued this month by the nonprofit research center Child Trends and its Hispanic Institute, also found that Latino children are more than twice as likely as white children to be poor, and much of the variation in Latino children’s math scores can be attributed to poverty.

Being from a low-income family, having parents with no education beyond high school, and living in a household where English is not the primary language spoken are all associated with lower math scores for Latino children starting kindergarten, the report stated.

One in four American kindergartners today is Latino, the report found, and by 2050, they are expected to be one in three. In California and New Mexico, Latino children are already in the majority. How this group fares in school, and how well prepared they are in an economy that’s increasingly technology-based, will have far-reaching implications for our country, the report said.

However, the outlook is not so bleak for Latino kids, and they can improve their math skills at the start of kindergarten, given certain factors. These include prior experience in center-based child care, more children’s books at home, and parents who frequently practice numbers with them, the report said.
Here are some other findings from the Child Trends Hispanic Institute, over the course of the kindergarten year:

  • Latino children’s progress in math achievement is helped by their attending a full-day kindergarten and by having more children’s books at home;
  • After accounting for poverty, Latino and white children learn math at the same rate during kindergarten. But because as a group, Latino children start behind their white peers, they remain behind in math by the spring of the kindergarten year; and
  • Among Latino children who started the year with relatively weak math skills, those with strong executive functioning made the greatest progress. Executive functions, such as paying attention and self-control, underlie multiple areas of academic achievement and social-emotional development.

The report refers to broader research literature that identifies systematic barriers to improving children’s math skills, including those of Latino children. For example, the research literature points to widespread, yet faulty, beliefs that math ability is largely innate; anxieties associated with math performance; and to bias against minority students — all of which can impede children’s progress.

The Child Trends report offers recommendations for policymakers, educational organizations, the education community, parents and researchers.

For policymakers:

  • Broaden access to high-quality early care and education, and make it more responsive to the needs of Latino families with young children;
  • Make full-day kindergarten available to all families, regardless of where they live; and
  • Adopt common standards for early math achievement.

For organizations engaged in education and advocacy:

  • Use multiple forms of communication (e.g. videos, social media, personal contact) to help correct prevalent misunderstandings and anxieties about math, and to offer practical help to parents, teachers and others on encouraging children’s early math skills; and
  • Expand the reach of programs that make children’s books freely available.

For the education community:

  • Increase the supply and strengthen the preparation of teachers who can provide high-quality early math learning experiences;;
  • Give greater attention to the special needs and strengths of dual language learners and their families; and
  • Improve the quantity and quality of developmentally appropriate math instruction, including using a structured curriculum.

For parents:  

  • Talk about math-related questions or tasks with children — using the language parents are most comfortable with;
  • Make math fun by capitalizing on, or creating, opportunities to bring number concepts and related language into children’s play;
  • Play games with children that may reinforce their emerging executive function skills; and
  • Introduce a variety of activities that are rich in language and content about the wider world.

For researchers:

  • Further investigate the development of early math skills, particularly through studies that delve deeply into the diverse Latino experience;
  • Develop valid assessments of early skills (both academic and non-academic) for Latino children and for others from non-dominant cultural backgrounds; and
  • Further investigate the potential role of bias in teachers’ ratings of children’s skills, their expectations for children’s behavior and their interactions with students.

To download the entire report for free, visit this site.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].