District Trendline

Who’s ready to teach elementary mathematics?

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This District Trendline explores how districts can use the findings from NCTQ's Teacher Prep Review Elementary Mathematics standard in recruitment and hiring decisions to identify teacher prep programs that provide candidates with the foundational mathematics content and pedagogy to be well-prepared to teach in the elementary grades.

Mathematics instruction is more critical than ever.

Learning loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new urgency to mathematics instruction. Multiple studies have found that elementary students, already well behind their peers in other nations, lost more learning in math than in reading since the start of the pandemic, with learning gaps 20% wider between low-poverty and high-poverty schools in fall 2021 than prior to the pandemic in fall 2019. 409 Another study found that students of color had more "unfinished learning" than white students, finding that students in majority-Hispanic schools lost on average of 4.5 months of math learning and students in majority-Black schools lost an average of 5.5 months of math learning, while students in majority-white schools lost 2.5 months.410

Addressing these growing gaps cannot wait. When students struggle with the math concepts taught in the early elementary grades, they are likely to continue to struggle well into middle and high school. 411 The role of teachers in building and cementing math skills is undeniable, but too many elementary teachers do not feel fully confident of their own knowledge of basic mathematics412 and, as a result, the instruction they provide may not support student learning.

Contrary to the long-standing assumption that anyone with a high school diploma has all the knowledge they need to teach elementary math, effective instruction requires both a conceptual understanding of foundational mathematics and deep pedagogical knowledge. NCTQ's analysis found most teacher preparation programs address at least some content knowledge and pedagogy and are dedicating more time to these concepts than just a decade ago. Yet there are considerable differences across states in the amount of time programs allocate to foundational math topics, explored in more detail below.

What should elementary teachers know about teaching math when they enter the classroom?

Professional organizations and state standards concur that elementary teachers need a firm understanding of numbers and operations, algebraic thinking, geometry and measurement, data analysis and probability, and mathematics-specific pedagogy. In developing the criteria to evaluate elementary teacher preparation programs' attention to mathematics, NCTQ consulted a panel of experts and gathered feedback via an open comment period to determine the minimum amount of coursework required for teacher candidates to acquire a conceptual understanding of these five topics. These guidelines, provided below, are closely aligned to the credit hour recommendations put forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences.

Do most teacher preparation programs spend sufficient time on mathematics?

The answer to this question can vary greatly depending on the program a candidate attends.

  • While undergraduate programs require more course time on mathematics than they did a decade ago, most still fall short. The average undergraduate program reviewed under the Elementary Mathematics standard dedicates 134 instructional hours (about 9 credits) of coursework to mathematics content and pedagogy courses specifically designed for teachers, compared to the recommended 150 hours.
  • Graduate programs are far weaker. The average graduate program allocates only 52 hours (less than 3.5 credits) to this material. Even on the same campus, there is an average difference of over 5.5 credit hours between undergraduate and graduate programs. These programs also rarely check candidates' understanding of mathematics during admission to the program.
  • On average, public undergraduate programs provide 151 hours (10 credits) of specialized mathematics coursework, while programs at private institutions dedicate 116 hours (less than 8 credits) to the same material.
  • Strong programs are out there. NCTQ found 121 programs that address at least 90% of the five instructional hour targets noted above, earning an A on the Elementary Mathematics standard, with 79 of these programs fully meeting each recommendation.

These findings also reveal differences when looking at the average undergraduate program in each state.

What can districts do to secure teachers with deep mathematics knowledge?

1. When deciding where to recruit new teachers, look to hire from preparation programs that devote sufficient time to elementary mathematics. Grades on the Elementary Mathematics standard for over 1,100 programs are available here

2. If you hire candidates who have just completed graduate programs, be cautious and dig deeper into their content knowledge. NCTQ's analysis found that 85% of graduate-level programs fell well short of providing adequate preparation in mathematics.

3. When few programs in your area offer adequate preparation, meet with local teacher preparation programs to review the courses and content expectations to ensure that there's an alignment between what's needed in the classroom and what candidates are learning from their program.

4. Or, given the variation between states in attention to elementary mathematics preparation, you may find stronger programs if you look across state lines, using NCTQ's ratings of preparation programs as a way to guide your search.

5. Invest in math coaches to bolster teachers' content knowledge, capacity, and efficacy by providing frequent, job-embedded support for teachers and by extension, their students.

The Elementary Mathematics report can be found here and the full dataset is available for download here.