Supporting Mathematics Education in Rural Early Childhood Centers
The importance of math learning experiences in early childhood as a foundation for future educational success has been well documented (Clements, Sarama, & DiBiase, 2004; NCTM, 2013; NRC, 2009). Research also shows that the provision of high quality professional development to early childhood and elementary teachers can improve the mathematics achievement of their students (Lee, 2010; Yoon, Duncan, Silvia, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). In the United States, professional development (PD) opportunities are most readily available to teachers in large, public school districts and is often focused on kindergarten to 8th grade learning. In rural areas where achievement is impacted by low socio-economic issues (Adams, Zaslow, & Tout, 2007; Lee & Burkam, 2002), much early childhood education is provided in small, independent or religious settings for which few PD opportunities exist or can be afforded with limited budgets. The opportunity for content-focused and pedagogical learning for teachers in these centers is rare. The researchers for this project work at a university located in a small, rural community in southern Illinois in the United States. Within the geographic region surrounding the university, there are many low-income, rural communities with limited access to resources. Independently operated early childhood centers are located within these communities that serve young children and their parents, positioning the university well as a provider of sustained professional development focused on mathematics.
Overview of the Project
The purpose of this two-year project is to improve the confidence, knowledge, and skills of rural early childhood educators to provide effective and ongoing instruction to establish a solid mathematical foundation for young children. The project focuses on providing high quality professional development (as defined by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017; Winton, Snyder & Goffin, 2016) to a small cohort of early childhood educators in independently operated early childhood centers. The professional development model used for this project includes monthly workshops held on campus with all participants, as well as, embedded professional development in the early childhood classrooms. Workshops focus on improving teachers' attitudes and beliefs about mathematics, active engagement of teachers in learning content and pedagogy critical to early childhood mathematics instruction, and introduction of materials and activities to be used in the classroom. In addition to the monthly workshops, an instructional coach visits each classroom twice a month to provide modeling and support on the effective use of strategies and materials. The overall goals of the grant are to provide high-quality professional development to early childhood educators in small, rural facilities in order to 1) increase participants' pedagogical content knowledge in mathematics; 2) improve participants' confidence and attitude regarding math-teaching ability; and 3) increase participants' use of effective pedagogical strategies and methods in teaching mathematics.
Professional Development Model
The READY 4 Math project is founded in the principles of high quality professional development described by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner (2017). These authors found that effective professional development involves a focus on content, active learning, collaboration, modeling of effective practice, coaching, and time for reflection over a sustained period (2017). The Ready 4 Math professional development model involves all of these elements over a period of two school years. Concepts and pedagogy appropriate for early childhood mathematics makes up the content focus of the project. Participants learn this content through engaging in discussion and activities at monthly workshops where effective practices are modeled by project investigators. A veteran early childhood educator with expertise in instructional coaching supports the use of the newly learned strategies through visits to each classroom twice per month. Participants share and reflect upon their experiences when they return to the next workshop. This paper reports on the experiences and results of the first four-month semester of project implementation, referred to as Phase One of the project.
Early childhood centers for this project were purposefully selected based on three criteria. The first overarching criteria was geographic location. Only centers in small, rural districts were considered, due to the lack of resources in those areas. Designation as a high needs school district, based on annual test scores of the district and socioeconomic level, was the second criteria. The rationale for this requirement was to help increase the foundational knowledge of young children before they enter the K-12 school system. The final requirement was that the center had to be a non-public school facility. Very few professional development opportunities exist for independently operated early childhood centers, so a need was evident. Once centers were identified, the directors were contacted to determine their interest in participating in the project. This selection process resulted in seven participating centers.
Once the centers were established, participants were chosen on a voluntary basis. Any early childhood educator who expressed an interest in the professional development and was willing to commit to the participation guidelines was given the opportunity. This resulted in seven participants for the project, all Caucasian females. Level of education varies among the participants from some college coursework to completed associate's or bachelor's degrees. One of the teachers holds a state credential in early childhood, and one indicated prior professional development in early childhood mathematics. Participating teachers have early childhood teaching experience from a range of less than one year to more than ten years. Average class size for these teachers is 18 students ranging in age from three to five years old. All but one of the teachers works with the students five days per week. Each participant receives $1,000 for each year of participation in addition to all of the materials used in the workshops.
The variety of goals for the project necessitates a varied approach to assessing the intended outcomes. After setting project goals, a broad search of early childhood mathematics literature was conducted to identify existing instruments with potential for use in this study. Despite the importance of this work, only a few validated measures exist for use in assessing early childhood mathematics outcomes. Of those available, the most appropriate were selected for use in providing insight into the outcomes of each of the project goals, as illustrated in Table 1.
To ascertain strategies employed by participants in teaching math, the Teacher Practices Survey, a slightly shortened version of the CME Foundation Math Survey (CME Group Foundation, n.d.), was utilized. This seventeen-item Likert-style survey asks teachers to respond whether they never, rarely, sometimes, or often use eight different high impact teaching practices. Additional prompts ask participants to indicate the extent to which they address nine different key concepts in math: counting, data analysis, measurement, number sense, operations, patterns, sets, shapes, and spatial relationships in their teaching. An option of "unable to answer" was provided in case participants were not familiar with the practice or concept described in any given item.
In addition to teacher practices, investigators seek to analyze shifts in participant attitudes toward math and the teaching of mathematics in their classrooms which occur over the life of the project. Investigators are interested in how teachers view mathematics and mathematics instruction as well as their confidence in effectively working with students to improve their mathematical ability. To gather this data, investigators requested and were granted permission to utilize the Attitudes, Beliefs, and Confidence in Early Mathematics (ABC-EM) measure designed by Chen and McCray (2013)...