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Richard Bisk

Making the grade: New math standards for teachers

By Richard Bisk
September 9, 2009

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IF A FIRST-GRADE teacher read at the fifth-grade level, citizens would be outraged. But what if the teacher had fifth-grade math skills? Until recently, there were not similar concerns about an elementary school teacher’s knowledge of mathematics.

In higher education, far too many students are unprepared for serious study in math and other quantitative fields. They are often confused by fractions and percents, incapable of mental calculations, unfamiliar with basic geometric principles, and intimidated by simple algebraic equations. The obvious question is: “What happened when they were taught these topics?’’

In 2007, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously to upgrade the mathematical requirements for new elementary school teachers. The changes include a detailed document that describes “the breadth and depth of mathematics that teachers at the elementary level must not only be able to do, but understand and explain in many ways to students.’’

The board expected that new teacher candidates would need at least three or four college-level math courses to develop this level of understanding. This year, prospective elementary school teachers are, for the first time, required to pass a math test.The changes are long overdue. Elementary school teachers are among the hardest-working and most dedicated professionals in our society. Yet few have the background to effectively teach math to their students.

Many will readily acknowledge that math is not their favorite subject to teach. But from my experience providing professional development, most are eager to acquire the understanding they need to become more effective.

Still, change can be hard. Not surprisingly, the pass rate on the new math test was only 27 percent the first time it was given. Reactions to the results also came as no surprise. Some challenged the legitimacy of the test and the new math requirements. Others seized on the opportunity to attack teachers’ intellectual ability. Both responses are unfair to students and teachers. No test is perfect, but specifying math topics that teachers must study and having an exam they are required to pass forces colleges and universities to focus on a key area of teacher preparation that was previously ignored. Elementary school teachers must know sophisticated and complex mathematics, not just be able to do third-grade calculations. To be effective, they need to understand underlying mathematical concepts in the same way they need an understanding of English that goes well beyond being able to read “The Cat in the Hat.’’

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education deserves praise for staying the course and not lowering the passing score for this test, while at the same time being flexible enough to give conditional certification to those who came close but didn’t pass. At Worcester State College, we’ve developed three courses to meet the new guidelines. However, many of our prospective elementary teachers still aren’t taking all three before sitting for the new exam because we haven’t completed the process of formally changing our requirements. Some have said that changing the requirements so quickly is unfair to students already in the higher education pipeline. This is nonsense. If we know teachers lack the skills they need to be effective, it would be unfair to their students not to address the problem as quickly as possible. The board needs to continue sending a clear message that the new standards are critical to the Commonwealth’s success in mathematics education and will not be delayed or watered down. College mathematics and education departments must implement the changes needed to help teachers meet the more rigorous requirements.

And everyone needs to recognize that teaching math to young children is as difficult and challenging as teaching reading and writing. Simply put, elementary math is anything but elementary.

Richard Bisk is chair and professor of mathematics at Worcester State College.

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