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East Bay STEM Network Releases Early Math Policy Recommendations

The East Bay STEM Network, a regional effort focusing on the importance of early math education, has just presented its Early Math Policy Recommendations to the California Assembly Select Subcommittee on STEM Education. The Network, comprised of educators, researchers, business leaders and civic organizations, has met since 2011, assembling research and conducting pilots aimed at overcoming the achievement gap that stems from disparities in math skills among low-income children of color.  Chaired by Leroy M. Morishita, Ed.D., President of the California State University East Bay, the Network’s Early Math Policy Recommendations have been signed by education leaders including the superintendents of the Alameda and Contra Costa County Offices of Education, and by employers including Wareham Development, Bayer, Genentech, Cisco, Broadcom, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Network is currently embarking on a public awareness campaign that will advocate for policy changes and funding in Sacramento later this year.

The Op-Ed penned by President Morishita follows:

Early Math: It’s Fundamental
by Leroy M. Morishita, Ed.D., President, California State University East Bay, and Sara Radcliffe, CEO and President, California Life Sciences Association

There is an achievement gap that gnaws at us both. It is the disparity in math skills that leaves low-income children of color starting kindergarten 20 months behind their more fortunate peers.

Why, you may wonder, would the president of a four-year public university, and the CEO of a life sciences industry association, worry about the math proficiency of preschoolers? Because we feel its effects every day. The math equity gap–the difference in achievement and attainment that begins in kindergarten–only widens as children get older. The disparity in kindergarten can lead to despair a dozen years later.

For STEM industries such as the life sciences, this math equity gap creates a desperate shortage of qualified workers at various levels, According to the California Life Sciences Association’s (CLSA) 2018 industry report, the life sciences sector alone is helping drive our state’s economy, providing 300,000 well-paid jobs at nearly 3,500 companies, universities and independent research institutes. Every day, these innovators are hard at work developing new medicines, devices and diagnostics to improve patient care. Academic talent is the bedrock of California’s life sciences sector and it is critical that that we continue to cultivate this pipeline from an early age.

For the California State University system, and any four-year college, we see a majority of today’s entering students unprepared for college-level math. This slows their ability to complete coursework in their majors, and can impede them from enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors or even finishing college.

And, realistically, being able to reason numerically is increasingly important in a digital world that requires quantitative skills to achieve at higher levels. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data show that U. S. math preparation has dropped to 41st worldwide – behind China, Canada, Vietnam, Russia, and Latvia, to name a few countries on the list.

But we have hope. For many of our children, this is a problem we can fix. The East Bay STEM Network is a group of educators, researchers, business leaders, and civic organizations who, since 2011, have come together to overcome the challenges of STEM education for California’s diverse population. Earlier this year, the STEM Network presented its Early Math Policy Recommendations to the state Assembly, proposing solutions that are the result of years of research and promising pilots. The solutions we propose require funding and systems change—but they will bring major, lasting results to the success of our diverse population and to our economy.

First, we need to understand that our preschool and elementary teachers, as hard as they work, are generally not adequately prepared to teach math in a way that builds understanding and curiosity. The teacher credentialing process needs to be strengthened and streamlined, and professional development for existing teachers needs to be prioritized, and made accessible and affordable.

We need to understand that math competency in early childhood is an even more powerful predictor than literacy of future academic and career success. Today’s preschools spend only about one-third the time teaching math compared to reading. These are both fundamental strengths that need to be established early, when the brain is developing with breathtaking speed.

Finally, we must all learn to overcome our math-phobia, especially around young children. In classrooms and after-school programs, on walks and at museums, even around the kitchen table, we can engage our children in counting, measuring, and ordering. Did you know that when you play a dice game, you are teaching the skill of seeing six dots as a set, without having to count out each dot? It’s called subitizing, and it is a fundamental math skill.

We know that investments in these recommendations can bring results. The Hayward Promise Neighborhood initiative, a community-based collaboration led by Cal State East Bay and funded over the last six years through the U. S. Department of Education, has created nearly 200 new preschool openings for young children in a low-income neighborhood, and provided training for educators to teach both math and literacy. When the participating children entered kindergarten, more than 90 percent were proficient in both math and English. This is more than double the countywide readiness rate.

The East Bay STEM Network is building a regional ecosystem to carry the message that early math education is one of the best investments we can make in our children—and in the talented workforce our STEM-based economy demands.

The Network’s Early Math Policy Recommendations have been signed by education leaders including the superintendents of the Alameda and Contra Costa County Offices of Education, and by employers such as Wareham Development, Bayer, Genentech, Cisco, Broadcom, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Network participants are advancing the agenda as well. The East Bay Economic Development Alliance is leading the public awareness campaign including a Family Math Day that took place at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland in September. A $1 million grant from the Malavalli Family Endowment for Early Math Education is helping to launch a family engagement program at a Hayward preschool this fall that we hope to scale throughout the East Bay. Businesses are training employee volunteers as early math coaches.

Imagine if we could get all our students ready for kindergarten, proficient in the twin foundations of English and math? We could look to higher academic achievement and stronger interest in school as children gain confidence and curiosity. Expensive interventions and remediation would be avoided. More students would continue their STEM studies and go on to become the talented individuals our state is calling for: engineers, cancer researchers, inventors, alternative energy experts.

The changes we are advocating will require leadership—on the part of our legislators and educators, community leaders, and families themselves. We are working to build public awareness and the momentum needed to make these changes. Early math education is an excellent investment in our future that we cannot defer.

Leroy M. Morishita is president of California State University, East Bay. He came to CSU East Bay in 2011 from San Francisco State University, where he served for 29 years in positions including Executive Vice President for Administration and Finance and Chief Financial Officer.

Sara Radcliffe is president and CEO of California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), the statewide trade association for the life sciences sector in California, which helps advance public policies that foster and promote medical innovation.