Report: Elementary Teachers Poorly Prepared to Teach Math

Published September 1, 2008

A new report on the math preparation of elementary school teachers has rekindled debate over the quality of teacher preparation programs.

In No Common Denominator, policy analyst Julie Greenberg of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) concludes most education programs surveyed are not providing adequate mathematics training to elementary teachers. Only 10 of 77 education programs in the sample were credited with providing an effective structure for this facet of teacher preparation.

“We have thousands of people being trained to do a job that’s pretty similar, who are being prepared in vastly different ways,” Greenberg said. “There just can’t be much sense to that variation.”

But Sharon Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), questions the report’s conclusions. NCTQ has “already established a bias against university-based teacher education,” she claimed.

Beyond Rote Instruction

The report concludes too many elementary teachers are not sufficiently equipped to give students the math skills they need to achieve at the next level.

“They aren’t comfortable teaching math,” said Greenberg. “This manifests itself in fairly rote instruction, which may be sufficient to allow elementary students to perform adequately on state and national assessments. But that falls short of giving them the conceptual understanding they need when they move into middle and high school level math.”

Only 23 percent of U.S. 12th-grade students perform proficiently on the mathematics section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). National averages in SAT math scores have increased little in recent years.

Questioning Methods

Robinson expressed concerns about reviewing course syllabi and descriptions as a method for assessing the quality of education programs.

“I don’t think that’s a comprehensive or fully responsible way to study this topic,” Robinson said.

Greenberg disagreed, saying the collected materials gave significant insight into the instructors’ priorities and the scope and philosophy of instruction.

“They do not provide an exhaustive review, but more than enough information to categorize programs basically as being adequate or not,” Greenberg said.

Skip Fennell, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), said the method has validity but could be enhanced by further analysis.

“A syllabus is important for any course,” Fennell said. “It’s like the recipe, but it’s also important that the meal is very satisfying.”

Addressing Education Programs

Greenberg lauded Louisiana State University as a beacon for other education departments. “They have a program that is coordinating math content and instruction in ways that bear examination by other institutions,” she said.

Robinson pointed out LSU and nine of the 10 top-performing education programs in the NCTQ report belong to AACTE–which represents about 800 of the nation’s 1,300 education programs.

But the less-highly rated AACTE member programs face significant challenges, she admitted.

“They’re all kind of struggling in the face of academic guidance from the math community, and what parents want kids to know,” Robinson said. “That illustrates the confusion teacher educators have to negotiate.”

Calling for Collaboration

Fennell suggested Greenberg’s findings call for greater collaboration in ensuring teachers can teach math well. “The report is a great opportunity for math departments and education departments to get together,” he said.

Robinson shares a similar view.

“The programs we feel are the strongest have the best relationships across disciplines,” Robinson said. “That results in stronger pedagogy for students who are going to do all different things with math.”

Fennell said the report’s central conclusion stands: Instructors in the early grades need more math content in their coursework preparation.

“Prospective elementary teachers should have a pretty deep understanding of data analysis and probability,” Fennell said.

Massachusetts Model

As a model for other states, Greenberg recommended policymakers follow Massachusetts’s example in ensuring elementary teachers are adequately prepared in math instruction.

“They’re not creating vague standards for what teachers should know; they’re establishing specific coursework requirements, credit requirements, and a licensing test that is going to be unlike any other in the country,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg believes the new Massachusetts math content test, scheduled to be first administered in 2009, will be the most rigorous in the nation.

In addition to the report’s call for coursework and testing improvements, Fennell said creating elementary math teaching specialist positions might help boost students’ preparation for higher-level math. That idea was among several recommendations made in March by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

“At least it’s an opportunity to consider,” Fennell said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America’s Education Schools, by Julie Greenberg, National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2008:

“Exit with Expertise: Do Ed Schools Prepare Elementary Teachers to Pass This Test?” (test with answer key), National Council on Teacher Quality: