Washington, D.C. – Over the last eight years, the nation's undergraduate teacher preparation programs have taken substantial action to increase the amount of math coursework required of future elementary teachers in an effort to prepare them to have a greater impact with students. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), Teacher Prep Review: Preparation for Teaching Elementary Mathematics, examines over 1,100 teacher preparation programs to determine how much time programs dedicate to mathematics as well as how that time is spent. The NCTQ data shows that undergraduate programs now require an average of 19% more time for elementary math coursework than they did in 2014, a sizable increase. However, in spite of allocating more time to overall math preparation, many programs do not make optimal use of this instructional time, failing to ensure that required courses cover the math content knowledge essential for fully preparing new elementary teachers.
National and international organizations have long called for specialized math coursework aimed at future teachers, not for the purpose of repeating the math material that teachers took during their own K-12 schooling, but to support aspiring elementary teachers to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of math content, as well as how to teach it. Elementary teachers themselves appear to agree, indicating in surveys that they have a weak grasp of several content topics within elementary math and some even claiming 'math-phobia,' in spite of clear state standards for students' math knowledge and skills and the critical need for young students to build a strong foundation in mathematics.
Research studies have found that elementary math skills are a strong predictor of whether (or not) a student will graduate from high school, yet national and international assessments find American public school students continue to struggle to achieve math proficiency. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the need for better elementary math instruction, as many states have reported that students have lost more learning in math than in reading
over the past two years. Further, pre-existing gaps in math achievement have worsened since 2020 between low-poverty and high-poverty schools and between majority-White and majority-Black schools.
"We know how much math matters in setting a foundation for students and closing opportunity gaps," said Dr. Heather Peske, NCTQ President. "The biggest in-school difference we can make for students' math learning is to make sure their elementary teachers understand key math content and know how to teach math effectively."
The latest data and analysis from NCTQ finds that 15% of undergraduate programs earn a grade of 'A' or 'A+' for their coverage of both the key mathematics content that elementary teachers need: Numbers and Operations, Algebraic Thinking, Geometry and Measurement, and Data Analysis and Probability, as well as how to teach those concepts (Math Pedagogy). Another 38% of undergraduate programs earn a grade of 'B'—a particularly promising finding as the majority of these programs only need to make minor changes to better allocate their mathematics coursework to ensure no essential topic is overlooked. At the other end of the spectrum, more than one in five (21%) undergraduate programs earn an 'F' grade for failing to provide even 60% of the mathematics coursework recommended by experts. A complete listing of program grades can be found here.
In contrast to undergraduate programs, the overwhelming majority of graduate-level programs preparing aspiring elementary teachers fail to provide sufficient coursework in mathematics. The NCTQ data shows that the average graduate teacher preparation program spends only 14 hours on mathematics content knowledge, compared to 85 hours on math content for the average undergraduate program. This helps to explain why 85% of graduate programs earn a grade of 'F' and only 2% earn a grade of 'A' or 'A+' on the NCTQ standard. Graduate teacher preparation programs are typically much shorter in length than undergraduate programs, some only a year, yet ensuring that aspiring elementary teachers possess the mathematics content knowledge they need is still possible in this shorter time frame. Graduate programs can require candidates to pass a math content test as a prerequisite to admission—though few in the nation do—and focus coursework on both math pedagogy and essential content to shore up gaps in mathematical knowledge.
"Undergraduate and graduate programs operating on the same campus appear to have two incompatible approaches on what it takes to deliver a well-prepared elementary teacher," observed Dr. Peske. "We know it is possible for a graduate program to cover the math content elementary teachers need, which is why we highlight the University of Montana as an exemplar in the report. Aspiring teachers at that university take the same coursework in math regardless of whether they are being prepared at the undergraduate or graduate level."
The new NCTQ report highlights 79 exemplar programs—including two at the graduate level—that earn the 'A+' designation for meeting 100% of the recommended instructional hours across all math topics. The report also provides examples of course maps from a number of these exemplars to support other programs in revising their own course requirements for elementary mathematics. View all the exemplar programs and resources here.
Each teacher preparation program included in the NCTQ data received a customized analysis of its elementary math coursework in advance of publication and was provided the opportunity to submit additional information for consideration. To further support programs' improvement, the full report includes detailed recommendations for how both teacher preparation program leaders and the state agencies responsible for their regulation can accelerate progress in preparing elementary teachers to teach math. See the full recommendations for programs and state policymakers here.
The NCTQ Elementary Mathematics standard recently underwent significant revisions, negating the ability to make a direct comparison between current and previous program grades on the standard. The new 2022 standard was developed over the past two years with the help of representatives from teacher preparation programs, mathematicians, and math educators. Feedback from an open comment period was incorporated into the standard by an external Math Expert Advisory Panel, which supported the development of the methodology and rubric for evaluating programs, including the minimum recommended instructional time programs should dedicate to core mathematics content and pedagogy. View the full methodology, rubric, and research rationale for the NCTQ Elementary Mathematics standard for more information.
Read the full NCTQ report, Teacher Prep Review: Preparation for Teaching Elementary Mathematics, or visit the NCTQ website to see all undergraduate and graduate programs' scores in Elementary Mathematics.
To schedule an interview with NCTQ President Dr. Heather Peske, contact Nicole Gerber at 202-393-0020 ext. 712 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ): NCTQ is a nonpartisan research and policy group, committed to modernizing the teaching profession and based on the belief that all children deserve effective teachers. We recognize that it is not teachers who bear responsibility for their profession's many challenges, but the institutions with the greatest authority and influence over teachers. More information about NCTQ can be found on our website, www.nctq.org.