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In New York City Pre-Ks, Adding 123s to the ABCs

The New York City Department of Education is expanding an early-childhood math program, Building Blocks, to more public pre-kindergarten classrooms, despite inconsistent evidence that it helps math skills.


Leslie Brody

In a city where 41% of third-graders pass state math tests, education officials are trying to boost children’s grasp of numbers, patterns and shapes as early as prekindergarten.

The trouble is, it can be hard to know what works.

The New York City Department of Education bet on a program called “Building Blocks” that research found had good results in Boston and elsewhere. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has launched the program in more than 1,000 prekindergarten classrooms, trained teachers and dispatched coaches to help them use its games, puzzles and hands-on projects.

Yet a 2016 study by the nonprofit research firm MDRC said that Building Blocks had no consistent impact on math skills, language ability or self-control of New York City children. The study compared children in the program with children randomly assigned to “pre-K as usual” classes. It found an early boost from Building Blocks in the fall of pre-K faded out by the end of the school year.

Even so, department officials express optimism about Building Blocks and plan to launch it in more classrooms next fall. Now it is in about a quarter of the city’s 1,800 public pre-K sites.

Sabrina Silverstein, executive director of the department’s early-childhood division, said Building Blocks fits well with lessons designed by the city about plants, families, science and other units, and teacher feedback has been positive. The city is spending $7.5 million this school year implementing what it calls the “Explore” track, which includes Building Blocks.

“We’re putting together what we think makes a curriculum that actually is going to have lasting effects,” Ms. Silverstein said. Some education experts have cautioned, however, that success depends largely on teachers’ skills, and their quality varies.

A number line in Donna Yung-Chan’s pre-K class at P.S. 1 in Manhattan.Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

Shira Mattera, a researcher at MDRC, said that perhaps New York City children in Building Blocks didn’t show more math skills than peers in “pre-K as usual” because the city has pushed math everywhere. Her study found children typically got 35 minutes a day of playful math in regular prekindergarten; children in Building Blocks classrooms had 12 minutes more daily.

Some parents worry that preschool has become too academic at the expense of free play. Pamela Morris, vice dean for research and faculty affairs at NYU Steinhardt, New York University’s school of education, says Building Blocks revolves around games, dialogue and social activities. “It builds on kids’ needs for play in effective ways,” she said.

P.S. 1 in Chinatown started using Building Blocks for the first time last fall. On a recent morning, two 4-year-olds sat on a carpet with their teacher, Donna Yung-Chan, and her coach, Damaris Rosado. Ms. Yung-Chan laid out a row of 10 numbered cards in order, face down, and announced she was putting a toy dinosaur on a card with a hidden label of the number 4.

“Where is number 5?” she asked. The goal was to help them visualize a number line, and concepts like “more than” and “between.”

A little girl flipped over a card. When she saw she was right, she burst into a smile.

“How did you know?” Ms. Yung-Chan asked.

“It comes after 4.”

Ms. Yung-Chan turned to her coach. “I told you I can’t trick them!”

A teacher for 30 years, Ms. Yung-Chan said Building Blocks added direction to her lessons. “It’s tied to objectives and makes your teaching more precise,” she said.

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A follow-up study by MDRC aimed to see whether children who were taught with Building Blocks in pre-K would benefit from a second year of extra early math through a new program called High 5s, which provided instruction in small math clubs three times a week.

The new study, released in February, found a “modest” positive impact on math skills and working memory for children in High 5s by the spring of their kindergarten year. It wasn’t clear whether the improvement stemmed from Building Blocks, the High 5s clubs or a combination, or whether the gains would persist. These studies are funded through philanthropies and will follow the children through third grade.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education, said the February study was encouraging, even if the gains were modest.  His school is training pre-K coaches.

“A lot of interventions tried in K to 12 or early childhood show nothing or negative results,” he said. “When you get statistically significant outcomes, it is a good signal that there is something there.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com