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Math skill in 1st grade linked to jobs, wages

U. MISSOURI (US) — Children who lack a specific math skill in first grade have a harder time with seventh grade math tests used to determine employability and wages later in life.

One in five adults in the United States lacks the math skills expected of an eighth grader, according to the United States Center for Educational Statistics. Intervention programs designed to overcome this early math deficiency could prepare students for later employment, help them make wiser economic choices, and improve the future US workforce.

“Our study made a connection between child psychology and labor economics in order to examine the roots of America’s shortage of mathematically proficient workers,” says lead author David Geary, professor of psychological sciences at University of Missouri.

“We isolated a specific skill that has real-world importance in employability and observed how that skill related to grade-school mathematical performance. By identifying a specific numerical skill as a target, we can focus education efforts on helping deficient students as early as kindergarten and thereby give them a better chance at career success in adulthood.”

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Number system knowledge is the ability to conceptualize a numeral as a symbol for a quantity and understand systematic relationships between numbers. Having this knowledge at the beginning of first grade predicted better functional mathematical ability in adolescence.

On the other hand, skill at solving math problems by counting didn’t correlate to later ability. Students who started behind in counting ability were able to catch up, but students who were behind in number system knowledge stayed behind their peers.

“An early deficit in number system knowledge creates a weak foundation for later learning,” Geary says. “That weak foundation can lead to a lifetime of problems, not limited to reduced employment opportunities. Poor understanding of mathematical concepts can make a person easy prey for predatory lenders. Numerical literacy, or numeracy, also helps with saving for big purchases and managing mortgages and credit card debt.”

Published in the journal PLoS One, Geary’s study involved 180 13-year-olds who had been assessed every year since kindergarten for intelligence, memory, mathematical cognition, attention span, and achievement. All of these factors were controlled for in the analysis of scores on the employability tests administered in seventh grade. Demographic differences also were accounted for along with other factors.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University contributed to the study.

Source: University of Missouri

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