Latino children currently account for nearly one quarter of the U.S. child population, and that share is expected to rise to one third by 2050. But new research shows that, for all their growing numbers, these young people lag behind their non-Latino peers academically. In a new analysis of a nationally representative database of kindergartners, Child Trends found that Latino kindergartners’ early math skills trail those of white kindergartners by the equivalent of 3 months’ learning at the start of school. Without intervention, this disparity is likely to persist–and could increase–over time.
Consider the implications of having one quarter of our young population at a long-term academic disadvantage. Beyond the social justice imperative to remedy racial or ethnic disparities, it also threatens our nation’s economic competitiveness. By one recent measure, the United States ranks 18th among peer nations in numeracy, and only one third of our eighth graders reach the “proficient or better” level in math, according to the widely cited “Nation’s Report Card.”
But these trends are not inevitable. Child Trends’ report also offers some research-based recommendations for improving Latinos’ early math achievement:
Young children’s positive interactions with parents make a significant difference to their cognitive development. According to one survey, students with higher math achievement at fourth and sixth grades had parents who practiced math skills with them often. Parents should know that talking, reading, and playing with their young child are all activities that can contribute to math learning. These shared activities foster a number of language- and math-related skills; interestingly, in addition to its established connections with early literacy, for Latino children, having many books at home is associated with better math skills. Strengthening the community resources available to parents can help; for instance, Reach Out and Read and Raising A Reader are two effective programs that provide children with books and parents with guidance on reading to their children.
Math has its own language, and students require baseline “math literacy” to succeed. Teachers can build students’ familiarity by introducing simple math concepts and ideas at an early age. Research shows that the most effective early math instruction is engaging, challenging, and tactile, often encouraging children to get hands-on with materials. The strongest strategies provide opportunities for problem-solving and collaboration, and are designed to build confidence as children’s skills improve.
Teachers’ instruction should be sensitive to children’s diverse cultures. Dual-language learners should be encouraged to learn math starting with their first language, for example, and teachers should familiarize themselves with the cognitive advantages that accompany bilingualism. Studies point to a connection between knowledge of a second language and advanced math skills, for example.
Latino children in the United States have historically trailed their white and black counterparts in terms of enrollment in center-based child care. This gap is likely the result of families’ socioeconomic resources, familiarity and comfort with publicly-funded programs and resources, and the timing and hours of care needed, among other challenges. Although there have been encouraging gains in their participation, Latino families may still require special outreach to address any barriers to access, including affordability and availability.
Our findings show that Latino children experience greater improvement in math skills when they attend full-day (rather than part-day) kindergarten, as 84 percent of them do. All students deserve this opportunity: prior studies have identified greater gains in both reading and math during kindergarten for children enrolled in full-day programs, and particularly for Latino children in those programs. Despite these findings, only 13 states require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, and even where it is offered, the day may be shorter than for first-graders. Not all states fund full-day kindergarten, which limits its accessibility for lower-income families (who may be required to pay for full-day enrollment), and others do not make kindergarten compulsory at all. Changing these requirements could have an impact on math scores for young Latino children.
The difference between Latinos’ and non-Latinos’ early math skills parallels their economic divide. Half of Latino kindergartners live in poverty, and Latino children are twice as likely as white children to be poor. Even when controlling for ethnicity, poverty and academic struggle go hand-in-hand: at the start of kindergarten, higher-income Hispanic children–those living at twice the poverty line–are 5 weeks ahead in their math learning, compared to those whose families live below the poverty line. Poor children are more likely than those in more affluent families to be exposed to social, emotional, and cognitive challenges. Any serious approach to closing racial/ethnic academic achievement gaps must also account for the “income achievement gap” as well.