To improve math outcomes for children ages 0–8 and increase awareness of the importance of early math, the California Department of Education (CDE) funded the California Statewide Early Math Initiative (CAEMI), led by the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools in partnership with the AIMS Center and WestEd.

The CAEMI professional learning and coaching model aimed to build early childhood directors, coordinators, and lead teachers’ positive math identities and raise their confidence, knowledge, and capacity to implement high-quality, equitable early mathematics education.

Thirty local education agencies (LEAs) participated in the CAEMI’s model and successfully implemented early math training and coaching with early childhood educators in their communities using various resources and activities offered by the CAEMI to implement a train-the-trainer approach.

Osnat Zur is the Director of the Early Childhood Learning and Development content area at WestEd. In this Q&A, Zur discusses WestEd’s formative evaluation of the CAEMI’s professional learning and coaching model and its impact on educators.

One of the goals of the initiative’s statewide strategy is to bridge the gaps in mathematics education between early education and K3. What are some of those gaps and how does the CAEMI learning and coaching model help improve early mathematics education?

Photo of 100 educators from across California participating in the CAEMI professional learning and coaching model, facilitated by the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education.

In many large systems, early care and education and K–3 educational settings often operate in isolated silos with rare opportunities for true collaboration. Meaningful, collaborative relationships with educators from both sectors lead to innovative ways to enhance continuity from early childhood to early elementary grades.

One gap that exists is a knowledge gap—a lack of deep understanding of the developmental progressions in early math from birth through age five for K–3 educators, as well as a lack of deep understanding of grades K–3 mathematical content for early childhood education (ECE) teachers. CAEMI aimed to bridge this gap by bringing practitioners and leaders together to participate in shared learning opportunities around children’s math development and pedagogical practices.

The initiative invited a group of facilitators from each agency, rather than one representative, to participate in the professional learning and coaching model. In agencies that serve children in early childhood and K–3 settings, their CAEMI participants included representatives from both sectors. Some facilitators shared that CAEMI provided the first opportunity to co-plan and collaborate. For example, in a county office of education, an infant/toddler specialist, an early learning specialist, and an early elementary math coach collaborated to create professional learning opportunities focused on spatial reasoning for family childcare providers, ECE teachers, and elementary teachers.

Also, within any structured educational setting, math becomes a formal, didactic, rote experience when research shows that children (and adults!) learn best through playful, hands-on experiences. The CAEMI embraced this playful, hands-on approach to teaching and learning mathematics for the adult learner participants to help shift any negative perceptions or attitudes toward math to more positive, growth-oriented math mindsets. Engaging adult learners in playful, hands-on math served the dual goal of helping educators see how they could make math more fun and engaging for children and students.

How did the professional learning and coaching model build capacity for the participating local education agencies? 

Professional learning and coaching included math content knowledge, math teaching practices, and how to provide effective training and coaching in early math. The professional learning and coaching successfully increased the agency facilitators’ awareness of the importance of early math and built their confidence and capacity to provide training and coaching in early math. Our evaluation data indicates an increase in the facilitators’ confidence in their math teaching skills, knowledge of children’s math development, and their math training and coaching skills. This significant growth was evident in most outcomes, regardless of the facilitators’ previous experience providing early math training and coaching.

Local implementation varied across agencies in the number and type of educators engaged, including the math content addressed in professional learning and coaching. Despite these differences in local implementation, the positive impact on educators was similar across agencies. Most agencies reported that educators deepened their early math knowledge and engaged in ongoing implementation of early math practices. They also reported observing educators’ increased awareness of and confidence in early math and improved ability of educators to implement newly acquired early math teaching practices in their settings.  

WestEd’s evaluation of the professional learning and coaching model examined changes in participants’ math identities. What math identities did you observe, did they differ between agency facilitators and educators, and how did they change?

Educators participating in the CAEMI professional learning and coaching model.
Photo of educators in California participating in the CAEMI professional learning and coaching model, facilitated by the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education.

In our formative evaluation, we aimed to examine math identities through items focused on personal feelings toward math, as well as confidence in knowledge of children’s math development, math pedagogy, and abilities to provide math training and coaching. CAEMI coaches asked facilitators to select their level of agreement with these items to assess any negative feelings toward math: “Just the word ‘math’ can make me feel nervous” and “I’m not a ‘math’ person.” From the beginning to the end of the initiative, facilitators’ responses indicated a significant decrease in their negative feelings toward math. In addition, facilitators’ responses also revealed a significant increase over the course of the initiative in their confidence in their knowledge of children’s math development, math teaching skills, and general training and coaching skills.   

The evaluation further focused on educators’ outcomes in two case studies. Educators in both case studies reported significant increases in their math content knowledge, confidence in supporting children’s early math, and frequency of math teaching practices from the beginning to the end of the initiative.  

The educators also shared many specific examples in interviews, supporting the survey data. In Case Study 1, educators reported increases in their knowledge of all areas of math, with the largest growth in the area of spatial reasoning. In addition, they reported that they felt more confident and more frequently used teaching practices that support children’s spatial reasoning.  

In Case Study 2, educators reported increases in their math knowledge across all areas, with the largest growth in the area of coding and robotics. At the end of their participation, they reported that they felt confident and prepared to continue implementing teaching practices to support children’s early math learning.   

Educators’ positive change in their math identities helped them feel more empowered to support math in their classrooms.

Most agencies that participated in the initiative successfully implemented the professional learning and coaching model with educators in their communities. What’s next for those educators, and how can they use what they’ve learned to support early math learning? 

Educators’ positive change in their math identities helped them feel more empowered to support math in their classrooms. They recognized the importance of early math and its contribution to children’s long-term school success. Educators also shared repeatedly that their participation in this initiative raised their awareness that “math is everywhere.” Across both case studies, educators described how their experiences in the CAEMI opened their eyes to math all around them.   

In Case Study 1, teachers and family childcare providers discussed how they began to see opportunities to support children’s spatial reasoning throughout daily routines and activities. For example, an elementary teacher talked about using spatial language with children during routines (e.g., mealtime), indoor play with manipulatives, outdoor gross motor play, and small- or whole-group activities.   

In Case Study 2, educators moved beyond offering math at a single math center or activity to using it throughout the classroom. They also reported that, at the outset of the CAEMI, they provided rote or basic math activities, such as counting and identifying shapes, but by the end of their participation, they were supporting different types of math concepts such as comparing and contrasting attributes of shapes, subitizing, and estimating.   

Both case studies demonstrate how educators’ participation in the CAEMI illuminated new ways of identifying and supporting math in children’s everyday environments. Facilitators reported educators’ promotion of math exploration through play, their use of hands-on, play-based math activities, and educators’ use of math-specific language and open-ended questions during play and daily interactions with children.    

Educators’ shifts in mindsets about math and the teaching practices acquired through the CAEMI should serve them as they continue to support children’s early math learning. Our ongoing evaluation efforts are documenting how local education agencies have continued to implement aspects of CAEMI since the end of the initiative’s first phase. We plan to gather more in-depth, comprehensive data from educators to understand further how the initiative changes their day-to-day interactions, routines, and instructional strategies with young children and students.

What are WestEd’s next steps in evaluating CAEMI and what data are you hoping to collect during future evaluations of it? 

As CAEMI moves into its next phase of implementation, the initiative partners are working to build on existing CAEMI resources to develop a set of publicly-accessible online suites for facilitators to continue providing professional learning and coaching to educators in their local communities. In this phase of the evaluation, we will aim to capture changes in educator knowledge and practices, more broadly and through direct assessments, and potentially assess the impact on children’s math engagement and outcomes.

We also want to understand how local education agencies use the CAEMI resources to meet the needs of their local contexts. We will track the current curriculum and assessment approaches and tools used in conjunction with the CAEMI resources more systematically.  

CAEMI is multifaceted and provides various resources aimed at enhancing family and community engagement. In the next phase of the evaluation, sub-studies will be conducted to gather feedback from families and community partners on how the CAEMI resources are effective in raising awareness of the significance of early mathematics education and aiding families in supporting their young children’s math development.