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Cultivating "Specialists" in Elementary Math


Elementary school teachers in this country, by and large, are generalists. That means they’re required to teach everything—math, science, language arts, history, you name it, regardless of how prepared they are in any particular subject. When it comes to math, a lot of people find that lack of expertise pretty troubling.

After all, many elementary teachers leave college having only taken one or two courses in math, at most. Their content knowledge may be pretty shaky, to put it mildly. Yet they’re also expected to provide the essential, ground-floor knowledge of math that young students need to prosper in more difficult math later in school.

Now a new effort is underway is create a cadre of math “specialists” at the elementary level. It’s part of a program at McDaniel College, in Maryland, being led by Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The “Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project” is offering master’s degrees in elementary math teacher leadership. Fennell hopes to expand the program and ensure the continuing development and mentoring of math “teacher leaders” in Maryland. He also wants to establish a “clearinghouse” of elementary math specialist programs nationally, to examine their practices, successes and challenges. A number of universities around the country have established endorsements and degrees for elementary math teachers. You can read descriptions of them here, along with various types of math certification offered by states. Eventually, Fennell hopes the work of the program will lead the state of Maryland to create certification for elementary, or K-8 math specialists. McDaniel College has been graduating students for years with elementary-specific math training, though they haven’t received state certification for expertise in that particular area, Fennell said.

By the way, yesterday Fennell and Vern Williams talked about elementary math specialists and many other issues during an Ed Week online “chat.” The focus of the discussion was the work of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which both of them served.

McDaniel will be revising its courses to try to determine what kind of preparation best suits elementary specialists. It will also be staging summer institutes to train educators working at that grade level. The project’s work will also be reviewed by an external evaluator. In addition, Fennell told me that he will be coordinating his work in Maryland with research being led by Deborah Ball (another former member of the national math panel) at the University of Michigan. He said his institute will develop “modules” to support the work of Michigan researchers on the essential content and classroom skills necessary for math teachers to prosper.

Do you think elementary “specialists” could play a role in improving the quality of math teaching? What barriers exist to bringing them into schools? And what key questions should the McDaniel College effort seek to answer?


I believe having math specialists is a great idea, but I wonder if it will be worth it for the teachers involved. For example, I will be getting my master's in elementary education through a transition-to-teach program. I will also be pursuing a middle school math addition to my teaching license because there isn't an addition OR a market for math specialists at the elementary level where I live.

I was advised to pursue high school math as a teaching path because of the higher demand for that specialty. The reality is that where I live it will be very, very difficult to get a job as an elementary teacher. I do find that some elementary teachers are weak in math, but my extra math training will not make me more marketable at the elementary level, or so i'm told. I would be perfectly happy teaching at the middle school level but I don't want to lock myself into teaching only one subject forever (no matter how much I enjoy it), which is why the license addition seems a good road for me. It does not, unfortunately, solve the problem of elementary teachers who are weak in math, particularly if someone like me can't even get a job at the elementary level.

While the current economy causes many staffing cuts and reassignments, the issue of math specialists become a very delicate position. I currently perform this position and find it extremely rewarding work. I am able to work side-by-side with teachers who aren't comfortable or even always competent with math instruction and get to see their enthusiasm and capacity grow as we work together. I strongly believe that ALL elementary schools would benefit from having a math specialist just as they do a reading specialist. Starting this work to earn certification now will pay off when the economy starts to improve and a group of teachers will be prepared to use that certification in more positions (hopefully!)

I think hiring a specialist to come in could only help the situation. People who specialize in a particular field should have a better idea on how to get the students to learn more effectively.

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