At a time when many are bemoaning the lack of preparation of Americans in science and mathematics, a new study places at least some of the blame on math teachers left unequipped by college and university teacher education programs.
A report released Friday by the National Council on Teacher Quality looked at 77 elementary education programs from all states but Alaska, examining the math courses elementary teacher candidates had to take. The report looked at three factors: “relevance,” the extent to which courses were relevant to what candidates would be teaching in the field; “breadth,” the degree to which “essential” topics are covered; and “depth,” if enough time was given to these topics.
Only 10 of the 77 programs scored adequately on all three criteria, according to the report, “No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America’s Education Schools.”  (They are the University of Georgia, Boston College, Indiana University at Bloomington, Lourdes College, University of Louisiana at Monroe, University of Maryland at College Park, University of Michigan, University of Montana, University of New Mexico, and Western Oregon University.)
The study attributes the inadequacy to a combination of low expectations and standards, haphazard state guidance and an absence of national consensus about what math teachers should know, and the relative dearth of algebra instruction in many curriculums.
“As a nation, our dislike and discomfort with math is so endemic that we do not even find it troubling when elementary teachers admit to their own weaknesses in basic mathematics," said Kate Walsh, president of the teacher quality council, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "Not only are our education schools not tackling these weaknesses, they accommodate them with low expectations and insufficient content. We simply must begin to appreciate the critical importance of elementary teachers gaining the knowledge and skills they need to effectively teach mathematics. It is what our children need in order to keep up with their peers around the world – and what our country needs in order to produce a skilled workforce that can compete in today’s global economy.”
Education schools have grown accustomed to critical reports questioning their rigor and quality, and their representatives often find fault in the studies. But Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said this one made some good points.
“I think it's really amazing they were able to discern some of the things they discerned,” she said.
Robinson took issue with the suggestion that academic entry standards for teacher education programs are decidedly lacking, arguing that entry standards have been rising "for years" and that teacher education candidates "are as strong as any students on campus."
But she said she could not disagree with the report's assessment that there is a lack of consensus among colleges and the states that govern them on how and what to teach to potential teachers. Robinson said the report correctly criticizes the "professional development" model that many teacher ed programs embrace rather than the classic liberal arts education model, which she favors.
She also noted that her group has advocated for the more rigorous content standards and assessments for teacher candidates that the report describes as necessary.
However, Robinson said that some of the problems cited in the report, teacher education programs cannot change alone. For example, some states have actually limited the amount of credit hours required for teacher education programs.
The report called the University of Georgia's program “exemplary.” Denise Mewborn heads the Department of Mathematics and Science Education at Georgia, and she explained the kind of math preparation her department requires of students.
First, students are required to take two general math courses that any other college student would have to take. They then must take three courses containing content based on elementary math. These courses look at the “why” of underlying math concepts, she said. The students are then required to take two courses that are method-based, meaning that students learn how to teach these math concepts to elementary aged students, Mewborn said. The courses look at how children think about these concepts, how to spark discussion and what to use in order to teach math effectively.