The imperative to focus attention on what and how students in preschool and early elementary school are learning in math is especially clear in California: While the state has had some success improving student achievement in math over the past few years, its fourth‐grade students continue to significantly under‐perform those in most other states, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)1.

With a longstanding commitment to strengthening early learning and improving outcomes for the state’s youngest children, the California‐based Heising Simons Foundation is directing new resources to help policymakers, education leaders and colleague funders address early math gaps. The longterm goal of its “Creating Coherent Early Math Instruction in California” initiative is to ensure that students from families with low incomes and children of color are appropriately challenged and supported in math instruction in the early years of school to reach proficiency by fourth grade.

To support its emerging work in this area, the foundation asked Education First in 2019 to prepare a series of research projects that map challenges and opportunities for improving early math in California, examine ways of better engaging parents as partners, and identify and describe promising initiatives to strengthen math foundations for young learners.

The foundation also invited Education First to identify implications of the research and make recommendations for steps state and local leaders and funders could take. To inform our analysis, we reviewed dozens of research papers and evaluations from the past decade, and we interviewed over 50 experts and practitioners in the field of early learning in general and early math in particular (both in California and around the country). Our research suggests strategies in five major categories can help improve early math outcomes for low‐income students and students of color:

  1. Improve the effectiveness of leaders who influence the quality and content of teaching math in the early grades.
  2. Better support and train the teacher workforce which—in early education—is generally poorly compensated and under‐prepared.
  3. Involve families as authentic partners in building children’s early confidence and conceptual understanding in math, in school and out of school.
  4. Create infrastructure and tools that support early math, including developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments, a strengthened process for rating the quality of early learning centers and helping them improve, and aligned PreK‐12 standards and curriculum.
  5. Build coherence between PreK and K‐12 systems by better connecting standards, data and training between these systems and ensuring successful transitions for students between preschool and elementary school.

Our research scan identifies challenges to overcome in putting these strategies in place and existing opportunities on which to capitalize—and, while this analysis is targeted to California’s context, we know many of the same issues and possible solutions exist in other states. It also summarizes why early math is an important area of emphasis for those working to close achievement gaps, and it identifies California‐based networks, funders and organizations already advancing efforts to improve student outcomes in math and/or early learning outcomes.


1 See Nations Report Card (2018); note, the National Center for Education Statistics administers the NAEP assessment in math every two years to a sample of 4th and 8th graders in every state and territory.