Unprepared to teach math

America’s future math teachers aren’t as prepared as future teachers in other countries, concludes the Teacher Education Study conducted by William Schmidt, a Michigan State education professor.

In the study, a representative sample of 3,300 future math teachers nearing the end of their teacher training at 81 colleges and universities in the United States were given a 90-minute test covering their knowledge of math concepts as well as their understanding of how to teach the subject.

On the elementary test, future teachers from Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan scored much higher than those in the U.S.,  Germany, Norway, the Russian Federation and Thailand; Botswana, Chile, Georgia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Poland and Spain scored well below.

On the middle school test, American students outscored students in Botswana, Chile, Georgia, Malaysia, Norway, Oman, the Philippines and Thailand, the study found.

The study found considerable variation in the math knowledge attained at different American colleges, with students at some scoring, on average, at the level of students in Botswana, the study said.

Hank Kepner, professor of mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, was happy for mediocrity. “We show up pretty well here, right in the middle of the pack.”

Schmidt wasn’t so optimistic:

“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.”

In releasing the Breaking the Cycle report, Schmidt said that more rigorous common core standards “will require U.S. math teachers to be even more knowledgeable.”

His study found 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 the fundamental courses.

Schmidt called for recruiting teachers with stronger math backgrounds, raising state certification requirements and requiring more advanced math courses in teacher preparation programs.

“Intensive, state-of-the art”  training for middle-school math teachers didn’t raise student achievement, concludes the “Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study,” by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2008, a two-year study of training for reading teachers also found no gains notes Ed Week’s Debra Viadero.

The results are already providing some intellectual ammunition for finding better ways to select and retain effective teachers—and shedding those who are ineffective—as the best way to improve instructional quality in schools.

In both cases, the training “spanned months and included summer institutes, follow-up seminars, and, in some cases, in-classroom coaching.” Participants received 55 more hours of training than teachers in the control group.

By the end of the school year, participants didn’t do significantly better on a test of math knowledge than the control group. Their teaching changed: They “were more likely to try to draw out students’ thinking by asking students whether they agreed with a classmate’s response, or inviting them to share their mathematical strategies.” But that did not lead to gains in student learning.