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Preparing Elementary Math Teachers -- Or Not

A new report strongly criticizes the way in which teacher colleges, and by extension, states, are preparing aspiring educators to teach math. Count on it receiving a good amount of attention, given all the worries these days about American students lacking sound skills in that subject.

Published by the National Council on Teacher Quality, the report says the curricula used by ed schools cover too little of the math content elementary teachers need—and that what's required varies greatly from campus to campus.

Many states don't help the situation, the report found. Eighteen states have no requirements for what teacher-candidates need to know in math. The textbooks they use are out of date, and important content, especially numbers and operations, and algebra, are neglected in ed school courses, it argues.

The report is a follow-up to a 2006 NCTQ study, which said ed schools were doing a poor job of preparing teachers to teach reading skills. A number of experts agreed with that overall conclusion, though they questioned the study's methodology, which relied on an examination of course syllabi, textbooks, and teaching materials from schools. The new study also looks at syllabi and texts. The authors concede that syllabi and texts may not reflect what is actually being taught in the classroom—but they argue that 1) those materials provide an outline of the schedule and goals of ed school courses; and 2) schools are likely to be covering even less math content than what is being presented in syllabi—not more.

The study is based on 77 ed schools (there are roughly 1,200 nationwide), located in every state except Alaska.

Unlike teachers at upper grades, most elementary educators, of course, are generalists. They're expected to skip from topic to topic, one of them being math, often despite having not studied that much math in college. This has led some people to argue in favor of schools using math "specialists" in elementary school, so that students would have a better shot of being taught that subject by somebody who knows it well.

One fact from the NCTQ report that may receive some notice: The colleges studied, on average, require aspiring math teachers to take 2.5 math courses. While the authors note that's only slightly below the 3 math courses they'd recommend for elementary educators, they argue that such coursework needs to be overhauled to better reflect what those future teachers need.

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