Does Your Child's Math Teacher Really Understand Math? (Probably Not)

February 16, 2017

There was a time when Americans thought only a few people needed to excel in mathematics. Yes, we expected everyone to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but we didn’t feel most people needed to understand how math worked. And it didn’t much matter, most people claimed never to need math in their jobs, even highly paid ones.

Today’s world is very different. Nearly every profession needs math for everything from managing baseball teams to analyzing terabytes of data in order to set pricing and select merchandise. Even auto mechanics require a labor force who can tap the power of mathematics. In the 21st century, math is more vital for business and life than ever before.

Setting students up for success will mean providing them with a deeper understanding of mathematics, and we can’t wait until high school to start. Meeting this challenge means we must raise the mathematics bar for elementary school teachers, and honestly, too many of their preparation programs set this bar too low.

 The teachers who will instruct tomorrow’s workforce sit in today’s colleges of education. What these aspiring teachers learn there will influence their ability to help their future students acquire the knowledge and skills they will need in their careers.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a report titled Landscapes in Teacher Preparation: Undergraduate Elementary Ed. One chapter, “A Closer Look at Elementary Mathematics,” analyzed the mathematics coursework of 860 undergraduate teacher prep programs for elementary teachers.

Unlike what the nation’s leading mathematicians and researchers recommend, just 13 percent of these programs require sufficient coursework building future teachers’ conceptual understanding of essential elementary mathematics topics such as numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. Instead, most programs take an approach that any college math course will do, regardless of its relevance to the instructional demands of the elementary curriculum.

Some programs and states do a better job than others in preparing future elementary school teachers.

Nine undergraduate elementary programs earned “A+” designations from NCTQ for their especially thorough coverage of elementary mathematics topics in their preparation of elementary teachers.

Unfortunately, there are also nine states which stand out, but not for good reasons. In these states, the majority of undergraduate teacher prep programs are not delivering the math content that elementary teachers need.

Top Universities for Teaching Elementary Math States Needing Math Program Improvement
  • Cedarville University (OH)
  • Elon University (NC)
  • Indiana University–South Bend
  • Iowa State University
  • Middle Georgia State University
  • University of Rio Grande (OH)
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Worcester State University (MA)
  • Winona State University (MN)
  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia

Business leaders understand that tomorrow’s workforce sits in today’s classrooms. That’s why they helped lead the charge for better schools and higher standards.

Now it is time to take these efforts to another level. The teachers who will instruct tomorrow’s workforce sit in today’s colleges of education. What these aspiring teachers learn there will influence their ability to help their future students acquire the knowledge and skills they will need in their careers.

For instance, business leaders can work with government officials to encourage higher standards and greater accountability in schools of education by:

  • Letting members of state boards of education and state superintendents know that there is a firm consensus on what elementary teachers need and that the programs approved by the state should deliver that content;
  • Talking to local colleges of teacher education about the importance of including research-proven content in teacher preparation, including math topics identified by mathematicians as being critical for elementary teachers;
  • Promoting efforts by states to build data systems that link teacher preparation programs to the learning gains made by students taught by their graduates and then to release this data so aspiring teachers--and those who hire new teachers--can see which programs educate the most effective teachers;
  • Driving funding to help the lowest ranked programs in the state learn from the successes of top ranked programs; and
  • Collaborating with local colleges of education (and local school systems) to bring employees who use math and science frequently to talk with aspiring elementary teachers (and existing teachers as part of their professional development) on the importance of early math study and some of the innovative ways math helps them on the job.

Business leaders must be as concerned about the quality of teacher preparation programs as they are about K–12 schools, and take action to communicate their dissatisfaction with inadequate programs providing insufficient preparation for the future.

For a complete listing of programs in every state and how they stack up in elementary mathematics, go here.