The Time Has Come for Pre-K-5 Mathematics Specialists

  • Lott_Johnny-100x139 by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
    NCTM News Bulletin, July/August 2003

    The No Child Left Behind Act calls for "highly qualified mathematics teachers" in all classrooms by 2005. To meet this requirement, teachers for the early grades would need both a bachelor's degree and state certification. In reality, the call for student proficiency in mathematics and science demands more than this. I suggest that although there has been a traditional unwillingness to consider the need for mathematics specialists in elementary schools, it is an idea whose time has come.

    Why Are Specialists Needed?

    Consider the arguments in favor of specialists in other fields:

    • Art—"Teacher education programs demand minimal preparation in the arts. ... How can one course teach all that is needed to successfully conduct an arts program? ... With an arts preparation that is bound to be incomplete (Boardman 1996), it is no wonder that elementary teachers have feelings of inadequacy when they address the arts curriculum. Under these conditions, as we have seen with other subject areas, teachers tend to rely on traditional activities that they experienced as students" (Passe 1999, pp. 168–69).
    • Physical education--"Nonspecialists' activities have been identified as less effective in developing skills and promoting higher levels of activity..." (Dewey [1904] 1970).

    Now, consider the needs of students in mathematics. Similar arguments to those above have been made in favor of mathematics specialists, including the following:

    • "Teacher decisions about curriculum and instruction are more likely to be based on teachers' personal classroom experiences as students than on teacher education courses and in-service training (Lortie 1975)" (quoted in Passe 1999, p. 156).
    • "Because they are not trained as specialists, elementary school teachers tend to have limited knowledge of mathematics" (Hyde 1989).
    • "Teachers whose mathematics program consists of endless drill may be disguising their lack of mathematical prowess. They could be hesitant to teach for conceptual understanding because they do not possess it themselves. Under such stress, the traditional approach is appealing because it emphasizes correct answers instead of mathematical reasoning and communication" (Passe 1999, p. 57).

    It's unfortunate that so many teachers of mathematics are teaching the subject without the requisite knowledge to teach it. Isn't it time for that to change? Mathematics specialists would do just that and could help improve mathematics learning by students in elementary school.

    What Makes a Teacher a Mathematics Specialist?

    The type of coursework and training that specialists should have was addressed in The Mathematical Education of Teachers Part I (Mathematical Association of America 2001, pp. 7–8):

    • Recommendation 1. Prospective teachers need mathematics courses that develop a deep understanding of the mathematics they will teach.
    • Recommendation 2. Although the quality of mathematical preparation is more important than the quantity, the following amount of mathematics coursework for prospective teachers is recommended.

      (i) Prospective elementary grade teachers should be required to take at least 9 semester-hours on fundamental ideas of elementary school mathematics.

    "Fundamental ideas of elementary school mathematics" must reach beyond what is taught to students at that level. The fundamental mathematics must be taught with understanding. Why algorithms work, why classifications are necessary for young children as they learn mathematics, and why it is necessary to learn the rudiments of mathematical language in such a way that they do not have to be relearned later are all ideas that may enter the fundamentals of mathematics for teachers. Understanding, not just mechanics, is a key here. A mathematics specialist at the elementary school level must have a basic understanding of mathematical concepts in each of the five content areas: algebra, geometry, measurement, number and operations, and data analysis and probability.

    The mandate for higher-performing students is nationwide. We are being pushed to consider different and better models for teaching. Evidence shows us that students of more knowledgeable teachers do score higher on tests. Therefore, I believe the time has come for a mathematics specialist for the elementary grades.

    Watch NCTM Web site for an online chat with Johnny Lott on this subject.


    Boardman, Eunice "Music Teacher Education." In Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, 2nd. ed., edited by W. Robert Houston, Martin Haberman, and John P. Sikula, pp. 730–45. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

    Dewey, John. "The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education." 1904. In Readings in Social Studies, edited by Peter H. Martorella. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

    Hyde, Arthur A. "Staff Development: Directions and Realities." In New Directions for Elemen-

    tary School Mathematics. 1989 Yearbook of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, edited by P. R. Trafton, pp. 223–33. Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989.

    Lortie, Dan C. Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

    Mathematical Association of America (in cooperation with the American Mathematical Society). The Mathematics Education of Teachers, Part I. Providence, R.I.: Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, 2001.

    Passe, Jeff. Elementary School Curriculum, 2nd. ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.