Learning fractions and long division in elementary school leads to math success, according to a Carnegie Mellon research team led by Robert Siegler. In the U.S. and Britain, fifth graders’ understanding of fractions and long division correlated with their ability to learn higher math.

“We need to improve instruction in long division and fractions, which will require helping teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts that underlie these mathematical operations,” said Siegler. “At present, many teachers lack this understanding.” By contrast, East Asian teachers can explain why math operations work.

And college remedial classes are filled with people who never “got” fractions.

Spatial thinking skills predict future math success, reports MindShift.

In a University of Chicago study students in first and second grade who chose the right shape to complete a square “also showed the most growth in their number-line knowledge over the following school year, and scored highest on a measure of mathematics ability at age eight.”

Parents can help their children develop spatial skills.

. . . Temple University psychology professor Nora Newcombe and her coauthors found that parents and children playing with blocks together were much more likely to use spatial terms like “over,” “around,” and “through,” than participants who played with a pre-assembled toy—and that it’s hearing and voicing such words that helps improve children’s spatial awareness.

Another 2011 study, this one from the University of Chicago, reported that the number of spatial terms (like “circle,” “curvy,” and “edge”) parents used while interacting with their toddlers predicted how many of these kinds of words children themselves produced, and how well they performed on spatial problem-solving tasks at a later age.

My first reaction was that kids who are good at math at a young age are likely to be good at math when they’re older. But there’s got to be more to the research than that, surely.

Careful here, you appear to be confusing correlation with causation:

“Learning fractions and long division in elementary school leads to math success, according to a Carnegie Mellon research team led by Robert Siegler. In the U.S. and Britain, fifth graders’ understanding of fractions and long division correlated with their ability to learn higher math.”

How can we be sure that there is a correlation and not a causation? There is a pretty critical difference.

Did you accidentally swap correlation and causation in your question? The data does suggest a correlation… the question, as with almost every educational study, is whether causation can be shown.

I can add anecdotal evidence to support the idea of causation – during my tutoring days, I would routinely back up to teach/reteach long division, fractions, and decimals with students in high school that were failing. Once they got the hang of them, they understood algebra and geometry better and their grades shot up.

This jibes with what my college math prof always used to say, 20 years ago:

When people are having trouble with calculus, they’re usually having trouble with algebra. And when people are having trouble with algebra, they’re really having trouble with arithmetic, usually fractions.

How lucky we are that these predictors of success can easily be drilled into students such that they have absolute mastery of … oh, never mind.

“But there’s got to be more to the research than that, surely.”

Don’t kid yourself.