Effective Systems

Mathematics Achievement of Spanish-Speaking Kindergartners and the Impact of Teacher Characteristics: A Mediation Hypothesis


Jensen, B. (2006). Mathematics Achievement of Spanish-Speaking Kindergartners and the Impact of Teacher Characteristics: A Mediation Hypothesis. Unpublished Thesis, Arizona State University.

This paper considers the state of early educational well-being for one of the fastest growing sections of the U.S. child population: young children of Hispanic immigrant families. It synthesizes the extant research literature of factors that impinge on the academic achievement of Spanish-speaking Kindergartners (SSK). In addition, data from a national longitudinal study of early school achievement and a model that evaluates the impact of teacher characteristics on SSK’s mathematics achievement are analyzed. Findings and implications for education policy, practice, and future research are discussed.

Children of immigrant families constitute the fastest growing child population in the United States. Presently, one in five children in the U.S. belongs to an immigrant family. Hispanics are overwhelmingly the largest racial/ethnic group within the immigrant child population. As the Hispanic immigrant child population continues to proportionally increase and spread throughout the country, U.S. schools witness larger concentrations of children entering kindergarten who speak Spanish as their native language –  – referred to in this paper as Spanish-speaking kindergartners (SSK). Compared to the general population, SSK often come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes, in which parents have little formal education. School practitioners and policymakers are challenged with developing curriculum, policy, and instructional practices that recognize and harness the cultural and linguistic strengths and meet the needs of SSKs. Such efforts have the potential of facilitating meaningful, long-lasting educational and academic experiences in school.

Among processes within school, teachers play an important role in this process. Empirical evidence and education theory indicate that variations in teacher characteristics –  – e.g., teaching experience, teacher expectations of students, professional qualifications, attitudinal components, curricular and instructional practices - significantly account for variations in student academic achievement. The amount of teaching experience, for example, has been found to significantly account for academic achievement differences in kindergarten. In addition, specific to the needs of SSK, research studies and psychoeducational theory suggest that teachers who speak Spanish and recognize the cognitive strengths of SSK, regardless of their inability to speak English, are more likely to promote higher student achievement outcomes. Psychoeducational theory posits that variations in teacher characteristics not only impact student achievement directly, but this direct effect is partially mediated by variations in teachers’ perceptions of the child’s ability to learn.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), this paper compares SSK to the general body of kindergartners on a number of academically relevant domains, and evaluates the direct effects of three teacher characteristics - a) whether Spanish is used for instruction in the classroom, b) teacher’s rating of the importance of knowing English for kindergarten readiness, and c) years teacher has taught kindergarten - on SSK’s mathematics achievement score. In addition, a mediation model was conducted to determine whether the direct effects of three teacher characteristics were mediated by their rating of the child’s approach to learning.

Results from this study indicated that,

  • SSK fare a standard deviation lower than their peers in terms of SES and parent education.
  • Compared to the general body of kindergartners, SSK score substantially lower in mathematics (.8 SD) during the fall semester of kindergarten.
  • Teachers of SSK are more likely to use Spanish in classroom instruction, less likely to perceive English proficiency as important to school readiness, and have less experience teaching kindergarten.
  • Teachers rate SSK as having slightly weaker approach to learning strategies.
  • Spanish-use in the classroom was found to account for a substantial amount of variance (over 4 %) of SSK mathematics achievement during the fall of kindergarten, where Spanish-use was associated with higher scores.
  • The direct effect of Spanish inclusion on mathematics achievement was partially mediated (i.e., indirect effect) by teacher’s view of child’s approach to learning.
  • Sizes of direct and indirect effects were found to vary by SES, level of mother’s education, and English proficiency.