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Any Surprises in This Report?

On June 25, 2008, the National Council of Teacher Quality released a study concluding that elementary teachers are ill-prepared to teach mathematics. Of the 77 education programs surveyed (about 5% of the total), only 9 university programs met basic requirements.

The following are the primary "findings" of the Report No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America's Education Schools:

  • Finding 1: Few education schools cover the mathematics content that elementary teachers need. In fact, the education schools in our sample are remarkable for having achieved little consensus about what teachers need. There is one unfortunate area of agreement: a widespread inattention to algebra.
  • Finding 2: States contribute to the chaos. While most state education agencies issue guidelines for the mathematics preparation of elementary teachers, states do not appear to know what is needed.
  • Finding 3: Most education schools use mathematics textbooks that are inadequate. The mathematics textbooks in the sample varied enormously in quality. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the courses use no textbook or a textbook that is inadequate in one or more of four critical areas of mathematics. Again, algebra is shortchanged, with no textbook providing the strongest possible support.
  • Finding 4: Almost anyone can get in. Compared to the admissions standards found in other countries, American education schools set exceedingly low expectations for the mathematics knowledge that aspiring teachers must demonstrate.
  • Finding 5: Almost anyone can get out. The standards used to determine successful completion of education schools' elementary teacher preparation programs are essentially no different than the low standards used to enter those programs.
  • Finding 6: The elementary mathematics in mathematics methods coursework is too often relegated to the sidelines. In particular, any practice teaching that may occur fails to emphasize the need to capably convey mathematics content to children.
  • Finding 7: Too often, the person assigned to teach mathematics to elementary teacher candidates is not professionally equipped to do so. Commendably, most elementary content courses are taught within mathematics departments, although the issue of just who is best qualified and motivated to impart the content of elementary mathematics to teachers remains a conundrum.
  • Finding 8: Almost anyone can do the work. Elementary mathematics courses are neither demanding in their content nor their expectations of students.
So what to do? One thing is for mathematics teachers (grades 6-12) to avoid the old adage and NOT point the finger and say: "See, I always said that our problems were at the elementary level." For, I believe, many of these same "findings" are true about secondary education preparation programs as well.

My view: Teacher education programs need to tighten their belts (i.e. trim some waste and fluff), replace "hoop-jumping" by rigorous and meaningful proficiency assessments, shift the outcome goal from "quantity" to "quality," and re-examine if the mathematics side of things are taught by convenience or tradition, rather than by what needs to be done.