Early Emergence of Socioeconomic Disparities in Mathematical Understanding

This study will provide foundational knowledge about the activities and interactions in the home environment that drive the early emergence of math skills disparities related to SES.

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The math skills of children from high income families have grown faster than those of children from middle- or low-income families resulting in a significant and persistent gap. These disparities emerge in preschool and are larger by the start of kindergarten. As children progress through school, the gap in math skills persists or even widens. Importantly, SES-related disparities in math skills have implications for long-term academic achievement and educational attainment, as well as access to STEM education and professions in adulthood. As such, there is an urgent need to identify the factors shaping early math development before children start formal schooling. This investigation will provide foundational knowledge about the activities and interactions in the home environment that drive the early emergence of math skills disparities related to SES. In the long term, findings from this work could inform home visitation programs and early care and education curricula aimed at strengthening the early math skills of children living in low resourced communities. The knowledge generated by this study has the potential to enhance equity in access to STEM education and professions for all children.

Using a longitudinal sequential study of two cohorts of socioeconomically diverse 30-month-olds (N = 320) and their parents, the proposed study will strengthen knowledge of the etiology of SES disparities in math skills by addressing three aims. First, it will examine associations between the home learning environment (HLE) and early math skills. Second, it will describe SES disparities in HLE and their implications for math learning. Third, it will test family stress and family culture as pathways through which SES shapes HLE and early math skills. Children will complete assessments of early math skills and other general cognitive abilities at age 30 months and again around 42-47 months. In addition to the child assessments at 30 months, in-home structured observations with a parent, parent surveys, and time diaries will measure the quantity and quality of children's opportunities for math learning at home. To measure family stress, parents will complete questionnaires assessing general stress as well as stress specifically related to performing and teaching math. To measure family culture, parents will complete questionnaires assessing their general and math-specific parenting beliefs and observations of family interactions will be conducted. This study will test whether domain-general and math-specific family stress and culture mediate the relation between HLE and SES. In sum, this study will make contributions to understanding the early emergence of economic disparities in early math skills. Theoretically, it will delineate whether domain-general or math-specific differences in HLE explain disparities in early math skills related to socioeconomic status. It will advance research by concurrently considering the roles of stress and culture in shaping disparities in children's opportunity to learn math in their early home environments. This project is funded by the EHR Core Research program, which emphasizes STEM education research that will generate foundational knowledge in the field.

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