School & District Management

Study: Improving Teachers’ Math Knowledge Doesn’t Boost Student Scores

By Liana Loewus — September 28, 2016 4 min read
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Fourth grade math teachers who took content-intensive professional development improved their own general math knowledge, but those gains did not trickle down to students, according to a federal study released today.

The results are especially notable given that pockets of mathematicians and math educators have been pushing the need to improve teachers’ math knowledge for many years. The importance of content knowledge has gotten even more attention since states began using the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize conceptual understanding of math—not just rote memorization and procedures.

“I think it may well be that the teachers’ knowledge is necessary but not sufficient,” Michael S. Garet, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and the lead author of the study, said in an interview. Teachers need to be able to translate that knowledge for students in the classroom, he said.

‘Surprising’ Growth in Teacher Understanding

For the study, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, 221 4th grade teachers across five states were randomly assigned to either participate in the professional development or not participate in it. The group that participated took an intensive 80-hour workshop in the summer of 2013 that “focused on deepening teachers’ knowledge of grades K-8 mathematics.” Teachers also received 13 hours of professional development during the 2013-14 school year, including meetings during which they analyzed student work and one-on-one coaching sessions.

The sessions focused on all K-8 content, rather than just 4th grade, Garet explained, because of the theory that “teachers need to have an understanding not only of the math they are teaching but how that math fits into what children have already learned in prior grades and what they’re going to be learning in subsequent grades.”

The study found that the professional development had a positive impact on teacher knowledge. Participants scored 7 points higher on a test of math knowledge than those in the control group (258 vs. 251) after the intensive summer program. Those gains were sustained at the end of the school year.

Looked at another way, teachers who participated in the math-learning sessions scored 21 percentile points higher than those in the control group.

“The effect on knowledge was quite large compared to other studies,” said Garet. “That to me was somewhat surprising and positive.”

The PD was also found to improve some aspects of teachers’ instruction. The study assessed whether and how well teachers explained mathematical concepts, and found that scores were significantly higher for participants (23 percentile points) than those in the control group.

In addition, the researchers looked at how engaged students were during math instruction and whether teachers made errors in their teaching. Teachers who took the PD performed better than the control group on these measures but not to a statistically significant degree.

No Impact on Achievement

Most notably, the study found that teacher participation in the 93 hours of PD did not have a positive impact on student achievement. Students whose teachers took the PD actually scored 2 percentile points lower than the control teachers’ students on both the state math assessment and another test, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The researchers say the finding is consistent with other PD studies, which very often fail to show an impact on student achievement.

But why doesn’t knowing more as a teacher help your students score better?

“That is the question, I think, that researchers and practitioners both need be thinking about,” said Garet. It’s likely that teachers need to improve their instructional tactics, but “it’s hard to know what teaching practices PD should focus on,” he said.

Of the instructional practices looked at in the study, only one had a correlation to student test scores: Teachers who made more errors in their teaching tended to have students who scored worse on their assessments. But the professional development given in this study did not improve this measure. “Future research might focus on identifying PD that will improve this aspect of practice,” the study states.

Overall, the researchers emphasize that teachers do need a deep understanding of math content.

“I don’t think this study is saying content knowledge doesn’t matter—I certainly don’t think that,” said Thomas Wei, a senior research scientist at IES and the project officer for the study. “It’s more nuanced. It may be something that of course is needed but ... it’s not like we can just teach teachers a bunch of content knowledge and expect them to bring it to the classroom. We need to think of what else [teachers need].”

Image: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.