Elementary Teacher Preparation in Mathematics

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Elementary Teacher Preparation in Mathematics

The state should ensure that new elementary teachers have sufficient knowledge of the mathematics content taught in elementary grades.

Best practices

Twenty-five states meet this goal by requiring that all candidates licensed to teach the elementary grades earn a passing score on an independently scored mathematics subtest. Massachusetts's MTEL mathematics subtest continues to set the standard in this area by evaluating mathematics knowledge beyond an elementary school level and challenging candidates' understanding of underlying mathematics concepts.

Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Elementary Teacher Preparation in Mathematics national results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/national/Elementary-Teacher-Preparation-in-Mathematics-69
Best practice 1


Meets goal 23


Nearly meets goal 2


Meets goal in part 1


Meets a small part of goal 17


Does not meet goal 7


Progress on this goal since 2013

  • Improved
  • Stayed the same
  • Regressed

Do states adequately assess elementary candidates’ mathematics knowledge?

Add previous year
Figure details

Yes. State requires a strong mathematics test. : AL, AR, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, ID, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, ME, MN, MO, NC, NH, NJ, NY, RI, SC, TX, UT, VA, VT, WV, WY

Partially. State does not require a separately scored mathematics test.: AZ, CA, GA, KS, MD, MI, MS, ND, NE, NM, NV, OK, OR, PA, SD, TN, WA, WI

No. State does not require a mathematics test.: AK, HI, IA, MT, OH

AK: Testing is not required for initial licensure.
ME: In addition to the Multiple Subjects test required of K-8 candidates, the state also offers a K-3 early elementary license that does not require a content test.
NJ: A candidate who fails to earn the passing score by 5 percent or less can still meet the subject matter requirement with a GPA of at least 3.5.
OH: Only teachers of grades 4 and 5 are required to pass a content test.
TN: New legislation in Tennessee allows teachers to delay passage of content and pedagogy tests if they possess a bachelor's degree in a core content area.

Research rationale

Required math coursework should be tailored in both design and delivery to the unique needs of the elementary teacher.
Aspiring elementary teachers must acquire a deep conceptual knowledge of the mathematics that they will teach, moving well beyond mere procedural understanding. Their training should focus on the critical areas of numbers and operations; algebra; geometry and, to a lesser degree, data analysis and probability.

To ensure that elementary teachers are well trained to teach the essential subject of mathematics, states must require teacher preparation programs to cover these four areas in coursework that it specially designed for prospective elementary teachers. Leading mathematicians and math educators have found that elementary teachers are not well served by courses designed for a general audience and that methods courses also do not provide sufficient preparation. According to Dr. Roger Howe, a mathematician at Yale University: "Future teachers do not need so much to learn more mathematics, as to reshape what they already know."

Most states' policies do not require preparation in mathematics of appropriate breadth and depth and specific to the needs of the elementary teacher. NCTQ's reports on teacher preparation, beginning with No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America's Education Schools in 2008 and continuing through the Teacher Prep Review in 2013 and 2014 have consistently found few teacher preparation programs across the country providing high-quality preparation in mathematics. Whether through standards or coursework requirements, states must ensure that their preparation programs graduate only teacher candidates who are well prepared to teach mathematics.

Many state tests offer no assurance that teachers are prepared to teach mathematics.
An increasing number of states require passage of a mathematics subtest as a condition of licensure., but many states still rely on subject-matter tests that include some items (or even a whole section) on mathematics instruction. However, since subject-specific passing scores are not required, one need not know much mathematics in order to pass. In fact, in some  cases one could answer every mathematics question incorrectly and still pass. States need to ensure that it is not possible to pass a licensure test that purportedly covers mathematics without knowing the critical material.

The content of these tests poses another issue: these tests should properly test elementary content but not at an elementary level.  Instead, problems should challenge the teacher candidate's understanding of underlying concepts and apply knowledge in nonroutine, multistep procedures. The test required by Massachusetts and now by North Carolina as well remains the standard bearer for a high quality, rigorous assessment for elementary teachers entirely and solely focused on mathematics.

Elementary Teacher Preparation in Mathematics: Supporting Research
For evidence that new teachers are not appropriately prepared to teach mathematics, see NCTQ, No Common Denominator: The Preparation of Elementary Teachers in Mathematics by America's Education Schools (2008) at: http://www.nctq.org/p/publications/docs/nctq_ttmath_fullreport_20090603062928.pdf.

For information on the mathematics content elementary teachers need to know, see National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, "Highly Qualified Teachers: A Position of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics," (July 2005). See also Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, The Mathematical Education of Teachers, Issues in Mathematics, Vol. 11, (American Mathematical Society in cooperation with the Mathematical Association of America, 2001), p. 8.

For evidence on the benefits of math content knowledge on student achievement, see S. Kukla-Acevedo "Do Teacher Characteristics Matter? New Results on the Effects of Teacher Preparation on Student Achievement." Economics of Education Review, Volume 28, 2009, pp. 49-57; H. Hill, B. Rowan and D. Ball "Effects of Teachers' Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching on Student Achievement," American Educational Research Journal, Volume 42, No. 2, Summer 2005, pp. 371-406.

For information on where states set passing scores on elementary level content tests for teacher licensing across the U.S., see chart on p. 13 of NCTQ "Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Removing the Roadblocks: How Federal Policy Can Cultivate Effective Teachers," (2011).