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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Should math teachers have math degrees?

Should math teachers have math degrees?

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Edutopia editor, Grace Rubenstein, passed along this interesting story in EdWeek today: recent research has shown that all this emphasis on teacher qualification may be misguided in at least one area: math. It seems there's no strong evidence that teachers who have college math degrees get better results with students than teachers who don't, at least in elementary and middle school. Here's a quote: Math teachers need to “know the subject matter well and how to teach it,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a scholar who has studied math teaching extensively. “The problem is that the math major is not a good proxy for that.” http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/11/25/13mathteach.h29.html What do you folks think?

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El Moody's picture

My opinion is that a good teacher for math is one who can relate to multiple intelligences and loves to teach. The teachers that I've learned math from encompassed humor, passion and loads of ways to teach a concept. Great teachers, who walk into the classroom each day with the intention ahead of time
to get through to every student, can teach nearly anything. Attitude and "people" skills make all the difference in the world. Lastly, teaching is learning: there is no room for a "know it all." I'm agreeing with the notion that most math teachers are dry, they lack the fundamentals to reach all the children in the classroom. No, they do not have to major in math to teach it.
Thank you,
Ms. Moody in Tucson AZ
Elementary Ed/Science

Gerald Meike's picture
Gerald Meike
Math Prof, Elementary and Secondary Ed Teacher teacher

No! Not for the first 5 grades. What the teachers need is a deeper understanding of arithmetic and elementary geometry, not an ability to carry out the processes of the Calculus and Linear Algebra.

Marlene Biddinger's picture

I don't think that you need a math degree to teach math. You just need to know the content area. I feel that you should continue to take math workshops and classes on line to learn more about using different math strategies. We learn from each other.

Marlene Biddinger's picture

I think that a math degree is not needed to teach math in elementary school.A teacher who teaches in middle school or high school should have a math degree. The subject area is a lot harder. A good teacher needs to know the content area. I also think that the math teacher should attend math workshops from the National Council of Math. They should also take classes on line to learn new math strategies.The students today are different from yesterday.

MDavis's picture

One of the biggest problems in elementary in teaching math is that most teachers are generalist. They take math but it's not as in depth as it should be. By the time many students come to middle school they do not have the background in the concepts that are needed to teach higher level. If anything, teachers who teach math in the elementary should have a concentration in math. Perhaps even in elementary classes should model the middle or high school. Let the students go to math class with teachers who have a math background, not just a generalist background.

George Bischoff's picture
George Bischoff
High School science teacher, eastern NC

It is interesting that in the countries that outperform the US, they have subject specialists starting in the lowest elementary grades, whereas we have generalists until somewhere in middle grades (5-8). My experience with my daughter's teachers is that many feel uncomfortable with a lot of what they teach, which makes it harder for other high school teachers (I teach science) to change misinformation learned at an early stage. The youngest students need a consistent face, but having others come in to co-teach other subjects is likely our best option for better instruction. This also allows for more personal attention and relationships, which are the key for better learning.

Caryn Pernu's picture
Caryn Pernu
Director of Program Strategies, National Youth Leadership Council

I'm coming late to this interesting discussion. I don't think elementary school teachers necessarily need a math degree, but I think they need to have a demonstrated understanding of mathematics (as opposed to merely arithmetic). I think elementary school math focuses too much on the subject matter of arithmetic and not enough on broader math concepts and helping students see the world as a mathematician might. It's that kind of thinking that opens the world up to new possibilities for kids.

Kimberly Shinn-Simpson's picture
Kimberly Shinn-Simpson
Math 9-12 Durham, NC

In my experiences I've had a number of colleagues who came to teaching from engineering or science. If the math background is strong and the desire to work with students is stronger, they make great teachers! However, I do worry about underqualified or motivated people seeking teaching positions now because education is considered "recession proof".

Caryn Pernu's picture
Caryn Pernu
Director of Program Strategies, National Youth Leadership Council

There was a fascinating article in the NY Times today on U.S. math teacher preparation:

America's future math teachers, on average, earned a C on a new test comparing their skills with their counterparts in 15 other countries, significantly outscoring college students in the Philippines and Chile but placing far below those in educationally advanced nations like Singapore and Taiwan.

The researchers who led the math study in this country, to be released in Washington on Thursday, judged the results acceptable if not encouraging for America's future elementary teachers. But they called them disturbing for American students heading to careers in middle schools, who were outscored by students in Germany, Poland, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan.

The full report, a press release, and powerpoint are available online at Michigan State University..

Linda Fahlberg-Stojanovska's picture

Again - we hit on the teachers.
I think better questions would be: Should persons training teachers and who write curricula and standards be required to (a) have actual field experience teaching that grade level? (b) have shown positive results in their actual field experience? (c) be tested in the areas in which they train others to see if they are competent, know the content area and have great discipline?
I have read article after "academic-scholarly" article by "educational professionals" (those that train our non-math major teachers, write curricula and standards) and am continually appalled by the fact that none of these are actual requirements.
I have read article after "academic-professional" article by "mathematicians" (those that train our math major teachers, complain about curricula and standards) and again am continually appalled by the fact that none of these are actual requirements.
Neither of these groups TALK SERIOUSLY to experienced, successful teachers in the field.
Why can't we form a community of experienced, successful teachers that can work together to share best-practices.
Every year, the poor teacher in the field must listen, obey and adapt (a) a "new and correct" way to teach mathematics , (b) a "new, correct" way to talk mathematics, (c) a "new and correct" set of standards, (d) a "new and correct" set of test questions.
Who cares if they are non-math majors or math majors? They are peons in the game of academics. I am simply amazed that they stay in the profession at all.
(I hold a doctorate in theoretical mathematics, teach university engineering mathematics - an EXTREMELY easy job compared to teaching K-12 math!)

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