About 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lacks the math competence expected of a middle-schooler, meaning they have trouble with those ordinary tasks and aren't qualified for many of today's jobs.
"It's not just, can you do well in school? It's how well can you do in your life," says Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding much of this research into math cognition. "We are in the midst of math all the time."
A new study shows trouble can start early.
University of Missouri researchers tested 180 seventh-graders. Those who lagged behind their peers in a test of core math skills needed to function as adults were the same kids who'd had the least number sense or fluency way back when they started first grade.
"The gap they started with, they don't close it," says Dr. David Geary, a cognitive psychologist who leads the study that is tracking children from kindergarten to high school in the Columbia, Mo., school system. "They're not catching up" to the kids who started ahead.
If first grade sounds pretty young to be predicting math ability, well, no one expects tots to be scribbling sums. But this number sense, or what Geary more precisely terms "number system knowledge," turns out to be a fundamental skill that students continually build on, much more than the simple ability to count.
What's involved? Understanding that numbers represent different quantities — that three dots is the same as the numeral "3" or the word "three." Grasping magnitude — that 23 is bigger than 17. Getting the concept that numbers can be broken into parts — that 5 is the same as 2 and 3, or 4 and 1. Showing on a number line that the difference between 10 and 12 is the same as the difference between 20 and 22.
Factors such as IQ and attention span didn't explain why some first-graders did better than others. Now Geary is studying if something that youngsters learn in preschool offers an advantage.
Image: Young schoolchild doing math, via Shutterstock