Back in the 1970s, I spent a lot of time riding around in my family's Oldsmobile station wagon (with the fake wood paneling on the side), without a thought of wearing a seat belt. Despite the danger of car accident fatalities, seat belts weren't required. Since then, seat belt use has dramatically increased, and state actions have been a big factor. When states made seat belt use a high priority, set clear goals and laws, enforced them, and provided resources, many more people used seat belts—and lives were changed for the better as a result. What if states applied the "seat belt" policy approach to solving our current mathematics education crisis?
Right now one in four fourth grade students score "below basic" in mathematics, making them far less likely to graduate high school or attend college, in large part due to lack of effective math instruction by teachers who themselves were not given the proper tools and training. While weak math instruction, particularly in elementary schools, is a longstanding problem, multiple studies find that elementary students lost more learning in math than in reading during the pandemic. Racial achievement gaps in math widened and inequitable access to advanced math courses persists, due to failure to provide all students with access to qualified teachers and challenging courses.
When students struggle with foundational math skills in the early elementary grades, they are likely to continue to struggle well into middle and high school. STEM jobs are the fastest-growing and among the highest-paying, yet job seekers with strong math skills, including math teachers, are in short supply. Inequity in math instruction and achievement hamstrings our economy and individual opportunity. Disrupting these patterns of racial and ethnic disparities in STEM starts in elementary school.
Even discomfort with math, arising from doubts about their abilities, hits harder for students facing more disadvantages. An intriguing new study explored teachers' and students' anxiety related to math, science, and ELA. Researchers found that when students were in a classroom with a teacher who reported higher math and science anxiety, students living in poverty experienced higher anxiety for these content areas than their more affluent peers. They conclude, "Evidence from the present study suggests that elementary teachers may be uniquely situated to foster their low-SES students' interest and engagement in STEM"—and they point to teacher preparation as one important lever for change.
There is hopeful news. Last spring, NCTQ released the Teacher Prep Review: Preparation in Elementary Mathematics. We examined over 1,100 elementary teacher preparation programs to determine how much time they spend on mathematics and how that time is spent. We found that programs now require an average of 19% more time for elementary math coursework than they did in 2014, a sizable increase. However, many programs do not make the best use of the time, and aspiring elementary teachers do not receive ample math content knowledge essential for their success with students. And we know teacher preparation matters. A new study of Massachusetts' teacher prep programs reinforces the importance of the state's role in teacher prep accountability.
But amidst a (sorely needed) barrage of legislative proposals to promote evidence-based literacy, the PIE Network has identified only 13 states that have introduced legislation related to math in the last year. In the states that have introduced math-related legislation, the policies often overlook the role of educator preparation in promoting effective math instruction. Colorado is an exception; the governor recently proposed a bill that includes a requirement for teacher preparation programs to train new teachers in evidence-based math instruction practices, including how to provide support for students who are below-grade level and students with disabilities. Similarly, the Alabama Numeracy Act of 2022, the state's comprehensive plan to improve math instruction, includes a requirement that the state education agency develop a Postsecondary Math Task Force to ensure teacher preparation programs are well-preparing aspiring elementary math teachers—a step in the right direction.
Just as states improved lives by passing laws and promoting accountability for seat belt use, they can also seize this moment and save mathematics from its currently neglected status. States must set standards for mathematics teacher prep—for instructional hours, the content of the instruction, and the opportunities for clinical practice—aligned with the content and skills teachers need to know, and frequently review programs and hold them accountable to the standards. We know, for example, that when teacher candidates learn about a specific math topic in their prep program, they deliver stronger lessons on that topic. And teachers who are taught math well (not rushing through material or assuming prior knowledge), and provided instruction about how children learn math have less anxiety about teaching math.
It all adds up (no pun intended!): You cannot teach what you do not know. For our students to learn math, we need teachers who are knowledgeable, skilled, practiced, and confident. Let's stop neglecting math instruction and math teacher preparation and get to work.