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Experts Claim Effective Math Teachers Need More Than Math Degrees

January 4, 2010

It seems obvious that one of the ideal qualifications of a mathematics teacher would be having a college major in that subject. Yet, according to a recent article in Education Week by Sean Cavanaghwhen it comes to improving student learning in elementary and middle school, the value of that academic credential is limited.

The disconnect seems counterintuitive. "While math content is obviously essential for teachers, educators also need a more refined set of classroom-ready tools than a college math major, on its own, is likely to offer," wrote Cavanagh, who interviewed several researchers and teachers for his article.  

"Math teachers need to know the subject matter well and how to teach it,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean of  University of Michigan School of Education. “The problem is that the math major is not a good proxy for that,” she continued.
Ball should know, having served on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which found no link between teachers’ degrees in mathematics and students' achievements in the subject in elementary and middle schools. The Panel did, however, find a link between high school teachers' degrees in mathematics and their students’ performance. 
Council of Chief State School Officers compiled data on 7-12th grade teachers who had majored in mathematics. It revealed these statewide numbers for 2007: California (54%); Connecticut (77%); Kansas (74%); Louisiana (46%); Minnesota (86%); Nebraska (77%); New Mexico (36%); South Carolina (51%); and Washington (40%).

 Henry S. Kepner, President of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics was also interviewed for the article. He told Education Week that he believes a more effective approach would be giving teachers targeted professional development after a year or two in the classroom—when they are acutely aware of what help they need in delivering math content. “That’s where our bigger growth can occur,” he said.

Julie Greenberg of National Council on Teacher Quality was more blunt. "We see larger issues at work, namely the need to attract the best people into teaching and exit those who aren't effective," she said. She suggested requiring teachers who majored in mathematics to take mathematics methods coursework.

"None of it really means that much until you get out there and start doing it and you can say, ‘This is going to be effective for me,'" said Dave Berry, a mathematics major and teacher at Challenger Middle School in Arizona. Even though they were covering college-level material, Berry said he picked up a lot of ideas about how to present math by watching his math professors at the University of Arizona, Tucson. 

“It’s a continual process of self-reflection and examining results,” he said. 

Source: Education Week (Vol. 29, Issue 13, Pages 1,14-15).

Start Date: 
Monday, January 4, 2010