Thoughts on the Report of the 2018 NSSME+
In June, I attended Horizon Research’s dissemination meeting on the Report of the 2018 NSSME+. The 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME+) reports the results of a survey of 7,600 science, mathematics, and computer science teachers in schools across the United States. Areas addressed in the report include teacher backgrounds and beliefs; science, mathematics, and computer science professional development; science, mathematics, and computer science courses; instructional objectives and activities; instructional resources; and factors affecting instruction.
This President’s Message highlights findings that I hope will stimulate conversations in mathematics teaching and learning, encourage mathematics educators to reflect on practices and professional development that support high-quality mathematics teaching, and explore how findings from this report and others inform us about equitable teaching and equitable structures.
According to NSSME+, the vast majority of mathematics teachers in the current mathematics teaching force identify as White, and the survey suggests a potential pipeline issue regarding age and years of experience. Table 1 is an adaptation of table 2.2 in the NSSME+ report showing the characteristics of teachers across sex, race, ethnicity, age, and years of teaching mathematics.
Table. 1 Characteristics of the Mathematics Teaching Force
The findings suggest that the proportion of mathematics teachers who identify as female decrease as grade level increases. The characteristics in table 1, when compared with student demographic data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), suggest that the characteristics of the mathematics teaching force do not reflect the student population nationally. NCES student demographic data indicate that enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 in fall 2018 was 15 percent Black, 28 percent Latinx, and 48 percent White.
The mathematics teaching force needs more diversity to reap the benefits of an increasingly diverse student population. I believe that prioritizing diversity and creating authentic culturally responsive spaces in mathematics classrooms improve the quality of both teaching and learning. A diverse mathematics teaching force has a positive impact on achievement in mathematics (Goldhaber, Theobald, & Tien, 2019), but it also has a positive effect on social and emotional learning as students and teachers interact with people who have different backgrounds, cultures, and orientations to the world. Given the benefits of diversity, the support for diversity is often championed by teachers of color and allies. That is, these teachers serve multiple roles such as role models for students and critical friends to colleagues, all while working on additional committees, serving as community liaisons, and coordinating tasks to foster a diverse and inclusive space in schools. Considering the privileged place that mathematics has in many schools, how do we leverage that privilege to support a more diverse mathematics teaching force?
The NSSME+ survey asked teachers about their beliefs regarding effective teaching and learning. At least 85 percent of all teachers believed that (1) teachers should ask students to justify their mathematical thinking, (2) students should learn mathematics by doing mathematics, (3) most class periods should provide students opportunities to share their thinking and reasoning, and (4) students learn best when instruction is connected to their everyday lives. These findings suggest that most teachers believe that mathematics teaching and learning should be consistent with some of the practices highlighted in NCTM’s Mathematics Teaching Framework (see my May 2019 President’s Message). I interpret these findings as teachers believing that student discourse (justifying, sharing thinking, and reasoning), using representations by doing mathematics, and making mathematics relevant to students’ lives are significant practices for mathematics teaching and learning.
Forty-nine percent of elementary, 66 percent of middle grades, and 70 percent of high school teachers either strongly agree or agree that “Students learn mathematics best in classes with students of similar abilities.” This suggests that the proportion of mathematics teachers who believe that students learn best in classes of similar abilities increases across the grade ranges. I interpret this to mean that nearly half of the elementary teachers and the majority of middle and high school teachers believe that students learn best in tracked classes. Tracking has significant implications for early childhood, elementary, middle grades, and high school mathematics. The tracking of students for instruction in mathematics segregates students of different backgrounds into separate experiences on pathways leading to different outcomes. Students segregated into low-track mathematics are routinely exposed to instruction focused primarily on rote skills and procedures that do not stretch their higher-order thinking and that give limited attention to developing their conceptual understanding. Students segregated into high-track mathematics typically experience mathematics as described in the four beliefs above. The four beliefs in the preceding paragraph and the belief in tracking represent a tension and a much-needed critical conversation. This tension might mean that more support for teachers is necessary to handle the diversity of needs in classrooms. How do we grapple with and unpack this tension? How do we constructively and productively deal with it?
Over three-fourths of teachers across each grade band (77 percent elementary, 89 percent middle school, and 83 percent high school) strongly agree or agree that “It is better for mathematics instruction to focus on ideas in depth, even if that means covering fewer topics.” This suggests that a focus on essential concepts across the grade bands would support teachers in identifying topics to teach for depth. Too often, teachers ask for guidance on the most critical content within their grade bands so that they can focus on these critical areas in order to help their students develop depth in their understanding. Many mathematics educators recognize that not all mathematics content within grade bands is of similar significance and that identifying essential concepts or critical areas of focus supports students for the continued study of mathematics so that they can experience the joy, wonder, and beauty of mathematics.
I invite you to review the Report of the 2018 NSSME+ and share your thoughts, wonders, and ideas with me on MyNCTM or Twitter.
Robert Q. Berry III
Banilower, Eric R., P. Sean Smith, Kristen A. Malzahn, Courtney L. Plumley, Evelyn M. Gordon, and Meredith L. Hayes. 2018. Report of the 2018 NSSME+. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Horizon Research, Inc.
Goldhaber, Dan, Roddy Theobald, and Christopher Tien. 2019. “Why We Need a Diverse Teacher Workforce.” Phi Delta Kappan 100, no. 5 (January): 25–30.
De-tracking is a valid goal, but it will take a lot of training, and plenty of reflection and discussion on effective use of manipulative and computational tools. (See this article.)
And this article suggests possibly useful techniques to help reach the full range of students in a given class.
-- Henri Picciotto
My first thoughts are disclaimers and reachability; how was this sample selected? Is it possible to cross section the sample on locale?
My disclaimer is this: I am a white, male, middle career teacher, but have had seen reverse/adverse affects of being replaced (or overlooked) to make the diversity quota. Dr. Berry, how is that equitable?
Also because I have tried to follow solid research in teaching, curriculum, and instruction (M.S. Ed Tech, master’s candidate in mathematics education), I have been told very recently I am not an effective fit for the district’s goals, so have been denied contract renewal (and it was tough having already been tenured elsewhere). If you look into my background and history I have worked with many diverse populations; am I to step aside and let a person of color teach in my spot to meet apparent demands for diverse teaching?
With regard to the tracking at the high school level, one reason that high school teachers would like students who have a similar level of skill and knowledge is the extreme discrepency that exists in many high school classrooms. In a grade 10 college prep class we will see students at the 5th (or lower) grade level up to students who could probably do grade 11 or even grade 12 work. It is not that we want tracking, it is that this range of prior knowledge make our day to day work extremely difficult to do well.