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The One Math Skill You Need to Succeed at Work

The One Math Skill You Need to Succeed at Work Credit: Math on chalkboard image via Shutterstock

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.

[LiveScience: The World's Most Beautiful Equations]

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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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.