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BREAKING THE CYCLE: New Report from Michigan State University Finds that Middle School Math Teachers Are Receiving Weak Training

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“A weak K–12 mathematics curriculum in the U.S., taught by teachers with an inadequate mathematics background, produces high school graduates who are at a disadvantage. When some of these students become future teachers and are not given a strong background in mathematics during teacher preparation, the cycle continues.”

Middle school math teachers are unprepared to teach students at a level considered competitive internationally, according to a new report from the Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), a project based out of Michigan State University. Breaking the Cycle: An International Comparison of U.S. Mathematics Teacher Preparation finds that neither prospective elementary nor middle school math teachers are as prepared to teach students as their international counterparts, but notes that preparation for U.S. middle school math teachers is “much more disconcerting” than preparation for elementary teachers.

“We must break the cycle in which we find ourselves,” said William Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor of education and one of the contributors to the report. “A weak K–12 mathematics curriculum in the U.S., taught by teachers with an inadequate mathematics background, produces high school graduates who are at a disadvantage. When some of these students become future teachers and are not given a strong background in mathematics during teacher preparation, the cycle continues.”

breaking the cycle

The report assessed teachers near the end of their program in terms of both their knowledge of mathematics as well as their knowledge of how to teach mathematics, also known as pedagogical knowledge. As shown in the chart to the right, the performance of U.S. middle school math teachers placed them behind Taiwan, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Poland, Switzerland, and Germany although the differences for Switzerland and Germany were not statistically significant.

The preparation of elementary teachers to teach mathematics was comparatively a bit better as the United States found itself in the middle of the distribution with other countries such as the Russian Federation, Germany, and Norway but behind Switzerland, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The study observes that the performance of future teachers in terms of their mathematics content knowledge at both the elementary and secondary levels closely parallels that of the students they teach. This is further supported by the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), which shows average achievement at the third- and fourth-grade levels but low achievement at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels as compared to other countries.

The report walks through the different ways that teacher certification is accomplished including elementary programs granting K–8 certification; middle school programs granting 6–8 or 7–9 certification; and secondary programs granting 6–12 or 7–12 certification. The report finds that in terms of mathematical content and pedagogical content knowledge, teachers trained in secondary programs outperformed other teachers by a significant amount, which, according to the report authors, should raise serious questions about the rules that states mandate for the training of middle school mathematic teachers.

The report also shows an international comparison of how much time teacher preparation programs devote to one of three areas, including the study of formal mathematics, mathematics pedagogy (i.e., how students learn mathematics and how it is best taught), and general pedagogy (i.e., instructional design, classroom management, as well as foundation courses related to schooling). In top-performing countries, 50 percent of the teacher preparation course was spent on the study of mathematics; the other half was allocated to mathematic pedagogy (30 percent) and general pedagogy (20 percent). In contrast, U.S. institutions spent 40 percent of the teacher preparation program on the study of mathematics and 60 percent was split evenly between mathematic and general pedagogy. The report also noted that while nearly all future middle school teachers in the top-achieving countries took courses in linear algebra and basic calculus, only about half of U.S. future teachers took these fundamental courses.

Breaking the Cycle also points to the varying levels of mathematic knowledge required for teaching middle school topics within different teacher preparation programs in the United States. For example, the report finds that some of the U.S. teacher preparation programs produced teachers that were at a similar level to how teachers performed in developing countries such as Botswana, but that other U.S. institutions produce teachers who have a knowledge level consistent with the average performance of select institutions in Taiwan.

The report authors also find a mismatch between what teachers know now and what they will be expected to know under the state-led, common core standards movement currently underway. The standards are designed to be internationally competitive and will hold students to higher expectations, which in turn, means that teachers will have to gain a deeper understanding of mathematics and be prepared to teach the challenging curriculum to all students. To address this dilemma, the report provides three recommendations:

  • Recruit teachers with stronger math backgrounds.
  • Implement more rigorous state certification requirements for math teachers.
  • Require more demanding math courses in all teacher preparation programs.

For the study, data was collected over a period of two years from nearly 3,300 future teachers from over eighty public and private colleges and universities within thirty-nine states.

To read the complete report or view related resources, visit http://www.educ.msu.edu/content/default.asp?contentID=710.

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