Are Aspiring Elementary Teachers Learning Enough Math?

Experts agree: Elementary teachers need to have a strong foundation in math. But teacher-preparation programs don’t always dedicate much time to elementary math coursework.

That’s starting to change, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality review of more than 1,100 teacher-prep programs that was released this week. Undergraduate programs that prepare aspiring elementary teachers now require an average of 19 percent more time for elementary math coursework than they did in 2014.

But the Washington-based think tank notes that there’s still a long way to go. NCTQ recommends that programs spend a minimum of 45 instructional hours on math pedagogy and 105 instructional hours on math content. But on average, undergraduate teacher-prep programs dedicate 49 hours to elementary math pedagogy and 85 hours to elementary math content.

About a fifth of undergraduate programs earned an ‘F’ grade in NCTQ’s review for providing less than 60 percent of the recommended mathematics coursework. And graduate programs fared even worse: 85 percent of those programs earned an ‘F’ and just 2 percent earned an ‘A’ or an ‘A+.’

“We need to recognize that teaching math at the elementary level is a complex enterprise,” said Heather Peske, NCTQ’s president. “We often fall into a trap thinking that everyone who has graduated from high school has the knowledge they need to teach elementary math. And that’s not true.”

Peske said elementary math teachers need to understand how mathematics standards relate to and build off each other. They need to have a deep conceptual understanding of the subject, and know how to teach it effectively to young learners.

Yet many elementary teachers indicate on surveys that they aren’t confident in their own math skills. Research shows that teachers unintentionally transmit their own attitudes about math to their students, and that when elementary teachers are anxious about math, their students learn less math across the school year.

“If we’re not comfortable with our own knowledge in teaching something, we might not spend as much time on it with students,” said Amanda Jansen, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Delaware who was not involved in the NCTQ report .

Across the country, large shares of students struggle in mathematics. In 2019, just 41 percent of 4th graders demonstrated proficiency in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the pandemic and resulting school closures appear to have disrupted math learning even furtherespecially for Black and Hispanic students—creating a new sense of urgency to better prepare teachers, Peske said.

Undergraduate programs are spending more time on math

To conduct the review, NCTQ and external analysts read through course catalogs to determine the required coursework for each teacher-prep program in the sample and then evaluated syllabi and course descriptions. (All course descriptions and 20 percent of syllabi were independently evaluated by two analysts.)

NCTQ shared preliminary scores with all of the programs multiple times and gave them a chance to submit additional information for consideration—170 institutions took them up on the offer, Peske said.

NCTQ has recommended since 2014 that teacher-prep programs dedicate four courses to mathematics—three in elementary math content and one in math pedagogy. Since that initial report, programs have added an average of 1.5 credit hours of elementary math to their graduation requirements.

Peske attributes the change both to NCTQ’s attention on the issue and an “increased awareness on the part of teacher-prep programs, as well as the districts who receive these teachers on the importance of math content … as well as math pedagogy,” she said .

After all, experts say the specialized coursework is key for prospective teachers. “When a future math teacher takes a math class for teachers, they experience the pedagogy modeled for them that they may not have experienced as a student,” Jansen said. “These courses make a big difference in their identities as teachers and their math knowledge.”

At the University of Delaware, Jansen teaches elementary math classes for aspiring teachers that are designed to explicitly unpack math thinking. Students might be asked to share their thinking in class, compare their problem-solving strategy to a classmate’s and discuss the connections, or draw a diagram to show mathematical relationships.

Recently, one aspiring elementary teacher told her, “Before I took these classes, I wasn’t as excited about teaching math, and now I can’t wait to give my students the experiences we’re having in these classes.”

But the NCTQ report warns that many programs may not be making optimal use of their instructional time. Undergraduate programs are dedicated to an average of 49 instructional hours to algebraic thinking and numbers and operations; 24 hours to geometry and measurement; and 13 hours to analyze data and probability.

NCTQ urges undergraduate teacher-prep programs to spend more time on numbers and operations and algebraic thinking—at least 65 hours—since those topic areas help students understand the number system, relationships among numbers, and how operations relate to one another.

The picture at the graduate level is ‘bleak’

While the report did find progress at the undergraduate level, “the picture is much more bleak at the graduate level,” Peske said. The graduate programs in NCTQ’s review spent an average of 14 hours on math content and 38 hours on math pedagogy.

That’s because graduate programs are typically much shorter in length than undergraduate programs, Peske said. They only have one or two years to prepare teachers, and there are many other competing priorities for instructional time.

Peske recommends that graduate programs require candidates to take a content knowledge test during the admissions process, so they can validate that applicants have mathematical knowledge. Yet among the nearly 300 programs in the NCTQ study sample, only 16 programs employed the use of such a test.

While many teacher licensing exams have been found to have disproportionate rates of failure among Black and Hispanic candidates, Peske said programs don’t have to use the scores to deny candidates admission. Instead, she said, programs can use the data to shore up instruction in subjects that candidates are struggling in.

See how programs compare by state

Wyoming’s teacher-prep programs topped the list in terms of math content taught to elementary teacher candidates with 146 instructional hours.

“There is little doubt that our students are best served when their teacher is confident in the subject of math as well as adequately prepared to teach math,” said Chad Auer, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, in an emailed response. “Here in Wyoming, our teacher preparation programs have thoughtfully emphasized math preparation in undergraduate teacher-prep programs. In my view, our K-12 students are the direct beneficiaries of this emphasis.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s teacher-prep programs ranked last in the country in terms of the math content provided, with just 40 hours.

In an email, Cassie Palelis, a Florida education department spokesperson, said some of the math instruction in teacher-prep programs may be embedded in courses with general names, like “instructional strategies”—which may not have shown up in NCTQ’s review. She added that teacher-prep programs are reviewed by the state to make sure they “appropriately address” numbers and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, conceptual understanding, problem-solving, and fluency.

Finally, Palelis noted, all teacher-candidates must pass a certification exam before completing their teacher-prep program, which covers mathematics.

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