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Preparing to Teach Young Children

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by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, October 2000

We have refined the ways we prepare children to understand and use mathematics. Principles and Standards for School Mathematics urges us to start building the foundations of mathematics success even before students enter kindergarten. Our vision of a high-quality mathematics education for every child demands that we find approaches for improving the mathematics content knowledge and pedagogy of all teachers, especially elementary school teachers.

In most states, teachers in grades K–6 are not mathematics specialists, nor have states asked them to be. But as we reach for higher standards, we are faced with a challenge. How do we better prepare elementary school teachers in mathematics and mathematics pedagogy? According to the National Science Foundation, only 7 percent of elementary school teachers and 18 percent of middle grades mathematics teachers majored or minored in mathematics or mathematics education. Furthermore, 40 percent of elementary school and middle grades teachers of mathematics report that they do not feel qualified to teach the content that they teach. In some school districts, large percentages of middle grades and high school mathematics teachers lack the certification to teach mathematics. For example, in one major U.S. city, 57 percent of the middle grades mathematics teachers lack mathematics certification, and 20 percent have not satisfied their board of education college mathematics requirements.

The level of preparation in mathematics and mathematics teaching needed to implement Standards-based mathematics programs may be largely inconsistent with the preservice preparation of the majority of elementary school teachers in the United States and Canada. We must address these crucial questions: Do teachers lack the deep understandings of mathematics that would allow them to teach concepts flexibly? Can teachers make appropriate connections (a) between arithmetic and real-life situations, and (b) among arithmetic concepts? Are teachers being prepared to implement Standards-based mathematics programs?

In every state and province, students must demonstrate a greater knowledge and understanding of mathematics--and mathematics teachers are expected to better facilitate their learning. This is especially true for elementary school teachers. That is why high-quality professional development is a necessary component of mathematics education reform. Does it work? Consider recent reforms in Puerto Rico (see Christian Science Monitor, 30 May 2000). Professional development was a fundamental component of mathematics reform efforts there. Six years after instituting instruction consistent with Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, important differences were observed. Public school children who had attended reform classes in middle grades and high school every year out-scored private school students who did not attend reform classes by 58 points in mathematics reasoning and by 79 points in mathematics achievement on College Entrance Examination Board tests.

Yet, amazingly, there is currently no comprehensive system in place in the United States or Canada to help mathematics teachers grow and develop professionally. We must change this, especially for elementary school teachers.

Elementary school teachers cannot be expected to master and maintain new knowledge and skills and change their current teaching practices without support from their schools and districts. In addition to structured, ongoing professional development beyond school hours, school systems must find ways to give teachers more time during the school week. Teachers need time to collaborate with colleagues, time to examine reform curricula based on Principles and Standards, and time to incorporate new mathematics content and teaching strategies into existing or new curricula. All teachers deserve opportunities to develop, analyze, master, and reflect on mathematics content and new teaching approaches that increase the likelihood that every child will succeed.

We must give even more attention to our preservice teacher preparation programs and requirements. And we need knowledgeable, experienced, and dedicated mathematicians and mathematics educators to form partnerships to provide course and professional development offerings that meet the content and pedagogical needs and challenges facing elementary school teachers in their classrooms each and every day.

NCTM can also play a role. This fall, the Council launched its Academy for Professional Development, which is offering two-day--and later will offer five-day--institutes focused on helping teachers put Principles and Standards into practice. This is a start. Ways to expand the professional development of mathematics teachers in the United States and Canada both in and out of the school setting will continue to be a focus of the Council for years to come.

It's time to make changes. Excellence in mathematics teaching and learning cannot wait. If we are to develop flexible and resourceful problem solvers for the future, we must eliminate the mathematics of exclusion in which only a few students gain access to the best we can offer. We must staff our classrooms at every grade level with well-prepared, knowledgeable mathematics teachers right now. And we must teach in ways that develop successful learners of mathematics. Our children deserve it.

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