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Preschool Math Skill Predicts Success

Controversial Study Says Math, Reading Skills Matter More Than Behavior
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 12, 2007 -- A hotly controversial study shows that preschool math and reading skills predict later academic success, but behavioral problems and social skills don't.

Northwestern University economist Greg Duncan, PhD, and colleagues analyzed data from six long-term studies of school readiness. The studies measured kids' math and reading skills and various aspects of behavior both before entering school at age 5 or 6 and later, during early or middle elementary school.

"The study was pretty surprising -- all six studies showed the importance first of math skills, and second of reading skills," Duncan tells WebMD. "But most surprising was that the association we expected between behavior problems and lack of social skills and later learning seems to be zero."

Duncan, now president-elect of the Society for Research on Child Development, was a member of a National Academies of Science panel that in 2000 reviewed the science of early childhood development. That panel came to a very different conclusion. It found that school readiness depends just as much on social and emotional skills as on thinking skills.

"I was never really convinced by the studies that show social and emotional behaviors to be more important than cognitive skills," Duncan says.

In their study of the kindergarten skills that predict later academic success, Duncan and colleagues found that math skills were by far the greatest predictor of success. Kids who had mastered basic math skills before entering kindergarten were much more likely than other kids to do well not only in math, but also in reading.

Early math skills were twice as strong a predictor of academic success as were reading skills. But like kids with good math skills, preschoolers with good reading skills later did well in both math and reading. Math skills were three times as strong a predictor of future success as ability to pay attention, the only behavioral or social skill to show an effect in the Duncan study.

"We don't really know why behavioral variables do not affect later achievement," Duncan says. "But for kids with a given set of reading and math skills, it just doesn't seem that behavior problems give them a net disadvantage."

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