Teachers feel poorly prepared in math

Many teachers say they’re not well-prepared to teach math, according to an excerpt from a new book, Inequality for All, by William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight.

In first through third grade, teachers feel prepared to teach only grade-level math topics, a survey of Michigan and Ohio teachers found. In some districts, only half said they were ready for grade-level math. (My first husband said his sister became a second-grade teacher because she couldn’t do third-grade math. This, apparently, is not a joke.)

Upper elementary teachers were more confident, though only one fourth of teachers in one district said they were well prepared to teach decimals.

Only 50 to 60 percent of middle school teachers felt well prepared to teach math topics in Michigan and Ohio standards. Both states plan to introduce algebra topics in eighth grade, but only half the teachers are ready.

At the high school level, at least 75 percent of math teachers feel confident about teaching 60 percent of math topics. But they’re not ready to expand into new areas.

. . .  there is an increasingly strong push for the inclusion of probability and statistics in high school, as is found in the Common Core State Standards, yet less than half of the surveyed mathematics teachers felt well prepared to teach it. Teachers’ self-perceptions of their preparedness seem likely, if anything, to overestimate what they know and how well prepared they are rather than to underestimate it.

Elementary and middle school teachers typically didn’t study much math in college. Even in middle school, three out of four math teachers didn’t major or minor in math.

. . .  a very large percentage of middle school students were being taught increasingly more complex mathematics, as called for in the Michigan and Ohio state standards, by teachers who lacked a strong background in mathematics.

High school math teachers have a stronger math background, but almost a third didn’t major or minor in math.

When teachers were tested on math knowledge, those who’d studied less math in college did worse. Results confirmed “what the teachers told us when they said that they were not well prepared,” Schmidt and McKnight write.

 

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Math skills are easier to quantify than other topics. Perhaps the overall skill level is weak.

  2. Well,

    Among many who would be ES teachers, the concept of ‘math avoidance’ or a lack of proper education in math while the ES teachers were in elementary school themselves is an issue.

    Given that admission to most education colleges requires little to no actual math, how can we expect education majors to actually be able to teach math if they cannot actually do it themselves.

    As a side note, how much and what kind of math is on the PRAXIS exam, which most (if not all) would be public school teachers are required to take?

    hmmmm

    • SuperSub says:

      While I can’t discuss the Praxis, NY’s “superior” LAST (Liberal Arts and Sciences Test) was easier than the SAT. While waiting in a school cafeteria to take it, I overheard one gentleman stating it was his third time taking the math portion of the exam (NY allows component retesting). Don’t know how he did, but he was telling a friend there was a teacher at the school he was student teaching at that took five tries to pass.

  3. Sean Mays says:

    Even in middle school, three out of four math teachers didn’t major or minor in math …

    You know, many engineers and hard science majors (chemistry, physics) have enough math to teach at the high school level; I think the emphasis on “math major” misses the point. PLUS, they’ve got a sense of what you can DO with it, which can lead to some decent examples and heck, maybe motivate somebody.

    • I agree with the sentiment that engineering and science majors could teach math or science, but I’m guessing that most middle school teachers aren’t engineers who changed to middle school teaching. i know that some STEM folks switch careers or ‘retire’ and start teaching, but I don’t think that its enough teachers to skew the statistics.

    • Foobarista says:

      Certainly anyone who took the undergrad “engineering & science” math classes could teach high school math, as they would have taken 3 semesters of college-level calculus and 1 semester of differential equations.

      Math majors obviously take these, but it’s hard to see how upper-division math courses such as abstract algebra, complex analysis, topology, etc would be much help in teaching elementary and high school kids.

      One other point: lots of ed schools think math is somehow “changing”, so they need to constantly change math instruction. At the levels that would be taught in K-12, the math being taught has been well-understood for 200+ years (in the case of calculus), and for the most part 1000+ years. I gather that they think that because computers are somehow “mathy”, and computers are changing, that math itself is changing.

      • Sean Mays says:

        Certainly anyone who took the undergrad “engineering & science” math classes could teach high school math …

        You’d think so Foobarista, you’d think so; but:

        When I was applying to ed school as an older career changer, one school in Boston didn’t want to accept me for math teaching. Reason: I lacked History of Math, Discrete Math and Abstract Algebra in my undergrad curriculum. Well, darn few undergrads take a History of Math class and even discrete math isn’t universal. The Dean didn’t buy my arguement that a physics and history of science dual major who’d also been a programmer AND completed grad work in computational finance could probably manage. I wound up going elsewhere.

        They DID want me to apply for the physics teachers track – just two grad classes like grad Quantum Mechanics and maybe Statistical Thermodynamics and I’d have been set for content. *ugh

  4. I don’t know if “poorly prepped” is a good phrase. I mean, you can’t go get a job as an accountant and keep it if you’re “poorly prepped” in maths. In fact, you’d be discouraged from applying.

    What is it about teaching that attracts people who don’t have their maths down cold to begin with?

  5. elf mom, teaching attracts college kids who think the course work (and maybe job?) will be easy and b/c they like kids. at least, that’s what the majority of my elementary ed. classmates said.

    bill, i took the middle school math PRAXIS in PA several years ago along with a special ed teacher from my building and i passed, he didn’t. but he still taught math that year to the special ed kids. the hardest problems i remember being on there were linear algebra type stuff. there may have been a matrix but nothing that anyone who took algebra 1 and 2 in HS couldn’t pass. and just last week i took Texas’ version of the middle school math test (they don’t accept the PRAXIS scores in TX) and it was harder than the PRAXIS. It included a problem or two of trig and calc but even so, I passed it first go round. i think there should really only be 2 chances. with both tests, i went in thinking: “this time i’ll see what’s on it and where i am weak. then i can study and retake it.” i didn’t end up needing to retake either, but i could give someone the opportunity to do so if they had the same line of reasoning. but seriously, if you can’t get it in 2 goes you have no business teaching math!

    and for the record, i feel prepared to teach all topics that i teach to my 8th graders but i also spend time on my own researching concepts and looking ahead to how students will need it in the future.

  6. elf mom, teaching attracts college kids who think the course work (and maybe job?) will be easy and b/c they like kids. at least, that’s what the majority of my elementary ed. classmates said.

    bill, i took the middle school math PRAXIS in PA several years ago along with a special ed teacher from my building and i passed, he didn’t. but he still taught math that year to the special ed kids. the hardest problems i remember being on there were linear algebra type stuff. there may have been a matrix but nothing that anyone who took algebra 1 and 2 in HS couldn’t pass. and just last week i took Texas’ version of the middle school math test (they don’t accept the PRAXIS scores in TX) and it was harder than the PRAXIS. It included a problem or two of trig and calc but even so, I passed it first go round. i think there should really only be 2 chances. with both tests, i went in thinking: “this time i’ll see what’s on it and where i am weak. then i can study and retake it.” i didn’t end up needing to retake either, but i could give someone the opportunity to do so if they had the same line of reasoning. but seriously, if you can’t get it in 2 goes you have no business teaching math!

    and for the record, i feel prepared to teach all topics that i teach to my 8th graders but i also spend time on my own researching concepts and looking ahead to how students will need it in the future.

  7. What on earth could be more idiotic than wasting math majors on elementary school?

    There’s absolutely no real evidence that knowing calculus improves your ability to teach first graders how to add.

    Unreal, how idiotic people can be. That “survey” is utterly puerile. As if asking math teachers how they “feeeeeeel” about their knowledge has any validity at all.

    By the way, have any of you goofballs decrying ed schools for not covering elementary school math considered that the teachers had to know it or something close to it in order to graduate from high school, much less pass the credentialing test?

    • SuperSub says:

      I think there’s a big difference between having a math major as an elementary school teacher and someone who knows that the three angles in a triangle add up to 180°. Or who can do 17*3 in their head. The article is suggesting that many elementary teachers, and even middle school, can’t.
      As for having needed to know the material to pass high school… that doesn’t work as an argument for the same reason I can’t teach French despite taking it from 7th-12th grade… even after just the four years of undergrad, I had forgotten too much to competently teach it.

    • You’d sure expect that they’d have to know elementary school math before graduating high school, but I see plenty of students entering college who sincerely believe that 1/3 + 1/4 is 2/7. I spent a few summers grading placement tests for the math department.

  8. Danny Gallagher says:

    This is 100% true that not all teachers are prepared as they should be, i think this is also a reason why students scare to math. If they are not provided a good teacher so this is not possible for them to understand the concepts of math.

  9. I did upper level math through college. I like math. I’m comfortable with it. I would not be comfortable teaching elementary math without some serious training, because the skills required to do that are completely, 100 percent different than the skills required to ace calculus and beyond!

    You can do math till the cows come home, it still won’t help you teach a kid what a fraction means or how to break apart a multi step problem. That’s harder than it sounds, especially if the kid has any language or spatial problems.

    And the standardized tests for early grade math are completely nuts. No calculation, lots of vocabulary and visual modeling. I understand the math just fine, but I often don’t understand what the test questions are Asking or which diagram they are looking for in their answer. That adds another layer of complication.

    The problem isn’t our unfamiliarity with math. It’s that teaching math, particularly when teaching to the test, is a whole different ball game.

  10. Maia,

    Linear Algebra as a course is usually something reserved for students (at least when I was in college in a STEM major) after Calculus I/II, but of course, linear equations in Algebra I/II is something different.

    So many students are scared of learning math, but IMO, if they were properly taught the basics of add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions, whole and real numbers, percentages and ratios, they’d probably come to LOVE math…