National Review Myth Buster #8: Standards on coursework are NOT arbitrary

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Over the last few months, we've worked to dispel myths and misconceptions regarding our national review of teacher preparation programs.  Today's post addresses the solid grounding in evidence behind our coursework standard on elementary teachers' preparation in mathematics.

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What's so magical about the number "8"?

That's the question we hear from ed schools, many of them objecting to the exactitude of our standard that says that at least 8 semester credit hours is necessary to fully prepare teacher candidates  to teach elementary mathematics. (The standard accommodates more selective programs, where candidates are presumed to have a stronger foundation in math, with a recommendation of 6 credits.)

But just how did we get to the number 8?

NCTQ's standard emerged from a protracted process conducted by leading mathematicians and mathematics educators. They were asked to identify the precise content and amount of instruction elementary teacher candidates typically need in order to be successful in the classroom.  Because a lot of elementary teacher candidates arrive at college under-prepared and math phobic, many experts advise that we only let elementary math specialists teach.  We think that lets institutions off the hook, which we have learned all too often have turned a blind eye to the level of preparation that elementary teachers should all get in mathematics.

Our panel identified the twelve essential topics that teachers need to know in order to teach elementary math. Then, based on their own wealth of experience teaching teacher candidates, they calculated that the bare minimum hours of instruction was 115 hours, or about 8 credits.  It doesn't quite add up to three standard semester courses (9 credits)—meaning there is still some wiggle room for additional topics for professors to pursue other topics.

These requirements strike some as "arbitrary." Perhaps understandably so in a field in which every institution decides on its own what kind of math coursework would adequately prepare the average teacher candidate.  There simply is no industry standard. In our Texas state pilot study we found no fewer than six models of math preparation for elementary teachers involving any number of combinations of kinds of courses.  The prevailing view is generally that ANY math course will do, that because elementary math topics seem so simple that it doesn't much matter what is taught.  Turns out nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has ever tried to teach about fractions can attest. 

The essence of "arbitrary" processes is that they are capricious or random.  The process NCTQ's advisors used to develop the coursework requirements for our math standard is anything but.

Julie Greenberg