Elementary School Sets the Foundation for Future Achievement

Education is like building a skyscraper — the strength of its foundation determines how high and sturdy the building can become. According to “Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications”1 written by W. Steven Barnett, “preschool education programs produce long-term improvements in school success, including higher achievement test scores, lower rates of grade repetition and special education, and higher educational attainment.” Attention to young students’ education has long-term impact, as educational gains made in preschool persist through Grade 8. At the same time, “the cognitive impact alone was somewhat larger over the K–8 period” (“Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Early Education Interventions on Cognitive and Social Development”2). In other words, the effects of education are cumulative, creating a strong base for each next step.

As in the construction of a building, where it’s impossible to build a strong third floor upon a weak foundation, the effect of early education is almost impossible to catch up. Alan Schoenfeld from the University of California, along with Deborah Stipek from Stanford University, analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study by the National Center for Education Statistics and concluded that, “children who begin school with poor math skills typically do not catch up​.” Children who have low math marks at the start of kindergarten continue to lag behind their better-prepared peers through 8th grade.



Not only do students in the lowest quartile remain there, but the gap between them and their peers widens. By 8th grade, they performed at a level their peers had surpassed by grade 5.


According to “Age, Plasticity, and Homeostasis In Childhood Brain Disorders”3, “brain plasticity,” or the ability of the brain to respond to changes in the internal or external environments by adopting new, stable connections, doesn’t correlate with age. However, the sooner a person starts building new neural connections through learning, the more success he or she can achieve in the course of life. Through regular, ongoing application, the brain learns to perceive new knowledge and achieves exponential growth. Such plasticity continues as long as learning continues, but like a muscle that is not exercised, the brain will lose its plasticity if learning stops. By developing cognitive and social skills, early learning builds self-confidence in a student and lays the groundwork for future achievement.


Success in elementary school is also predictor college readiness. According to The Nation’s Report Card, only 25% of high school students performed at or above proficient level in math on the most recent assessment. Another report says, “only about a third of U.S. high school seniors are prepared for college-level coursework in math and reading.” At the same time, according to a recently-published report by McKinsey Global Institute, there will be a drop in demand for labor with secondary or lower education (due to Artificial Intelligence, robots, and other automation), and a jump in demand for a college-educated workforce.



Therefore, teachers will be expected to continue to make a push for college readiness to fulfill the market demand. The opportunity for educational success that makes college readiness easy and absolutely attainable starts with early learning and strong curriculum for elementary school.


This research correlates with another topic currently under the scrutiny of researchers and familiar to many educators: mindset. According to Carol Dweck, mindset is “a core belief about how [people] learn.” There are two types of mindsets determining, but not limiting, a person’s ability for intellectual development. The first one, known as fixed mindset, is formed when a person does not believe he or she can do better. It limits a student and causes stagnation.


Its opposite is growth mindset, in which healthy self-esteem and confidence implicitly affect the educational pathway and help learners move forward. Stanford professor Jo Boaler has been working on growth mindset when it comes to teaching math, including the creation of resources available for teachers to foster growth mindset in their students. Boaler also reported how wrong messages affect early learners, especially girls. In childhood – as young as 5 years old, without yet having experienced the subject for themselves – students are exposed to wrong messages, such as, “We are not really a math family,” or, “I was never good at math, ask your dad.” These types of math messages impact the student, creating negative, often fixed, mindsets in mathematics learning.


These messages begin early in education, despite the evidence presented by George Duncan from Northwestern University (Duncan et al. (2007)) that early math is key for later academic achievement. According to the study, the strongest predictors of later achievement are school-entry math readiness, reading, and attention skills. Math is considered the “most predictive of subsequent achievement outcomes.​” Surprisingly, school-entry math skills are as predictive of later reading progress as are school-entry reading skills.


Based on this latest research, Happy Numbers offers teachers an online math supplement for PreK-5 students. Check it out here → https://happynumbers.com.


1W. Steven Barnett, National Institute for Early Education Research
2Gregory Camilli from the University of Colorado, and Sadako Vargas, Sharon Ryan and W. Steven Barnett from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
3Maureen Dennis, Brenda J. Spiegler, Jenifer J. Juranek, Erin D. Bigler, O. Carter Snead, and Jack M. Fletcher

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