The One Math Skill You Need to Succeed at Work

The key to improving today's workforce could lie in the elementary school math class, new research shows.

A study by University of Missouri researchers identified how a lack of a specific math skill in first grade correlated to lower scores on a seventh-grade math test used to determine employability and wages in adults.

David Geary, a Missouri professor and the study's lead author, said the research made a connection between child psychology and labor economics in order to examine the roots of America's shortage of mathematically proficient workers. Data from the United States Center for Educational Statistics revealed that one in five adults lacks the math competency expected of an eighth-grader.

"We isolated a specific skill that has real-world importance in employability and observed how that skill related to grade-school mathematical performance," Geary said. "By identifying a specific numerical skill as a target, we can focus education efforts on helping deficient students as early as kindergarten and thereby give them a better chance at career success in adulthood."

The math skill researchers identified was "number system knowledge," which is the ability to conceptualize a numeral as a symbol for a quantity and understand systematic relationships between numbers. The study found that having this knowledge at the beginning of first grade predicted better functional mathematical ability in adolescence.

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Geary said an early deficit in number system knowledge creates a weak foundation for later learning, which can lead to a lifetime of problems, not limited to reduced employment opportunities.

"Poor understanding of mathematical concepts can make a person easy prey for predatory lenders," he said. "Numerical literacy, or numeracy, also helps with saving for big purchases and managing mortgages and credit-card debt."

The researchers believe intervention programs designed to overcome this early math deficiency could prepare students for later employment, help them make wiser economic choices and improve the future U.S. workforce.

The study, which was co-authored by Missouri senior researchers Mary Hoard and Lara Nugent and Missouri doctoral graduate Drew Bailey, involved 180 13-year-olds who had been assessed every year since kindergarten for intelligence, memory, mathematical cognition, attention span and achievement. The research was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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