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What Do Teachers of Middle- Grades Mathematics Need?

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by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, September 2003

How can those who teach or aspire to teach middle school attain the knowledge of mathematics content that they will need to prepare students? Before we answer this question, let's take a look at some of the current conditions under which the profession is operating.

In today's world, middle school teachers may find it challenging to teach mathematics if their education resulted in a K–8 teaching certificate. This is because K–8 teacher certification programs rarely require more than 9 semester hours of mathematics content and possibly a 3-credit methods class. Teachers also may be ill equipped for the middle school classroom if they majored in mathematics in a traditional secondary-level teacher-preparation program and have had little professional development since completing that major. Most traditional mathematics majors may complete 33 to 36 semester credits of mathematics at the collegiate level, which, although connected mathematically, will likely have little connection to what is actually being taught in the middle school classroom. (For example, it is one thing to know that rational numbers are equivalence classes of a relation on the set of integers cross itself, and a far different thing to be able to talk with middle school students in a meaningful way about proportionality involving rational numbers.)

To better equip middle school educators with the knowledge they need to teach mathematics, we can look to The Mathematical Education of Teachers, Part I (MET) (2001) for guidance. MET is a report designed for mathematics faculty and other parties involved in the education of mathematics teachers. The document is consistent with NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics as well as other recent national reports on school mathematics. (The full report is available online at www.cbmsweb.org/MET_Document/index.htm.)

The authors of MET suggest that prospective middle school teachers "should be required to take at least 21 semester-hours of mathematics, that includes at least 12 semester-hours on fundamental ideas of school mathematics appropriate for middle grades teachers." By this recommendation, the authors intended two levels of courses—the first to develop a deep understanding of the mathematics that teachers will teach, and the second to broaden their understanding of mathematical connections between one educational level and the next (meaning both elementary and middle, and middle and high school levels). The authors of this document also suggest one semester of calculus (not the type typically taken by mathematics majors and engineers), number theory, discrete mathematics, history of mathematics, linear algebra and modern algebra, geometry, and data analysis and probability. This is an extensive set of courses rarely combined in a 21-credit package at most universities.

Similarly, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) defines a highly qualified new middle school mathematics teacher as one who has either a bachelor's degree with a major in mathematics or a master's degree and knowledge of mathematics subject matter. The description is not that different from the MET requirements.

The question then is how can we satisfy either of the sets of mathematics requirements for prospective teachers? It appears that it can be done only with the following actions:

  • Discontinue K–8 teaching certificates that have minimal requirements. If states want to continue this type of certification, then they should increase the demands for content and pedagogy for the certificate. Content must be specified, and pedagogy or learning theory must accompany it. A person receiving this type of certificate should expect five years of preparation for the certificate (including a bachelor's degree).
  • Revise the requirements for a 7–12 teaching certificate. In most states this certificate has allowed a mathematics major to receive a secondary school certification. Unless coursework is changed significantly, this major will still allow minimally qualified mathematics teachers in middle school.
  • Develop coursework that is appropriate for middle school teachers. All universities and teacher preparation institutions should acknowledge that most traditional mathematics majors do not meet the intent of either MET or NCLB.
  • Provide professional development for teachers who are now in the classroom and do not meet the current expectations required for middle school teachers.
  • Hire mathematics specialists as middle school mathematics teachers.

This last recommendation will require some serious consideration in rural and remote schools, but to do less is to continue to allow students to be inadequately prepared in mathematics.

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