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8th Grade Algebra Teachers in Arkansas to Need State Nod

By Sean Cavanagh — October 21, 2008 6 min read
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Lindsay E. Carlton has taught mathematics to students at different grades, with different ability levels. Now, the young educator’s state wants to recognize her ability to work with one group in particular: 8th graders enrolled in introductory algebra.

Ms. Carlton is one of many math educators across Arkansas who plan to acquire a new, unusual state endorsement to teach Algebra 1. Arkansas officials decided earlier this year to require all 8th grade teachers who want to teach Algebra 1, one of the most fundamental and challenging courses on the way to more advanced math, to obtain that state credential. Teachers licensed in high school math do not need the new endorsement. A number of experts on math teaching said they believe the Arkansas endorsement is one of the only course-specific math credentials of its kind in the country.

Policymakers and educators routinely point to the need to shore up the content knowledge of middle-grades teachers, many of whom have earned elementary school certification. Arkansas officials see the new endorsement as a way to ensure that teachers are qualified to cover the math content as more students in the state enroll in Algebra 1 in 8th grade, rather than waiting until high school.

To earn the new credential, Arkansas teachers must not only complete the existing, more basic coursework for middle school certification—with math content in numeration, number sense, algebraic concepts and other areas—they must also delve into advanced math or calculus concepts. Ms. Carlton, who is 26, covered that material during her undergraduate and graduate study. She soon plans to take the middle school math Praxis test to complete the final requirement for endorsement.

Ms. Carlton says she has enjoyed teaching algebra to 8th graders at her school, located in the 2,200-student Crossett district in southeastern Arkansas. But she believes many teachers and aspiring educators lack the confidence in that subject. The endorsement, and the requisites it carries, could help them, she said.

“People are just afraid of algebra. Just the word—it’s scary,” Ms. Carlton said. Many teachers, she added, “probably understand it, but getting it across to students is a scary thing.”

High School Borrowing

Algebra can be defined as the study of relationships between numbers, which are often represented by symbols. It requires students to use expressions and generate equations to represent problems, in which one or more quantities may be unknown. For many students, algebra is an abrupt departure from more basic arithmetic into more abstract mathematical thinking.

Mathematicians and policymakers regard Algebra 1 as a crucial subject for students moving into higher-level math, and in recent years, states have encouraged more students to take that class earlier, specifically in 8th grade. The percentage of 8th graders enrolled in Algebra 1 nationwide rose from 24 percent to 34 percent from 1996 to 2005, according to estimates compiled by the Council of Chief State School Officers. That trend also seems evident in Arkansas, where 8th graders enrollment in introductory algebra jumped from 18 percent to 27 percent from 2003 to 2005, the CCSSO estimates.

California and Minnesota are phasing in requirements that all students take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Some researchers and educators, however, have cautioned against schools’ moving too fast, noting that test scores indicate that many students are woefully unprepared for the subject in middle school, at least without heavy remediation. (“Experts Question Calif.’s Algebra Edict,” July 30 and “Low Performers Found Unready to Take Algebra,” Sept. 24, 2008.)

Arkansas has boosted its high school coursetaking requirements in recent years. It has not required 8th graders to take algebra, though it is encouraging those who are ready to do so, said Beverly Williams, the state’s assistant education commissioner, who has worked on the Algebra 1 endorsement.

Middle School Math: A Nationwide Look

Demands are rising for qualified math teachers as course requirements in that subject increase.

34% of 8th graders were enrolled in algebra in 2005, up from 27% in 2003

64,000 of middle school teachers had their main assignment in math in 2006, up from 54,000 in 1996

61% of grades 7-12 math teachers have majors in their assigned fields

Out of 30 states reporting information, 10 said they had less than 60% of grades 7-8 teachers certified in math

Source: Council of Chief State School Officers, 2007

The state currently provides two types of certification for math teachers. Middle school teachers receive general certification across subjects for grades 4-8. High school teachers are expected to receive math-specific certifications for grades 7-12.

Many states have similar requirements, though some give a specific middle school math credential; most states issue a math-specific high school license, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a Reston, Va.-based professional association.

Ms. Williams said she hopes at least 250 8th grade teachers will have secured the new algebra endorsement within a few years.

To date, Arkansas has not allowed teachers with only a middle school license to teach Algebra 1, unless they were also licensed in high school math, Ms. Williams said. Partly as a result, many middle schools, particularly in rural communities, have been forced to borrow algebra teachers from nearby high schools, which depletes the entire system, she said.

In establishing the new Algebra 1 endorsement, state officials hope to relieve that burden and set clear expectations for teachers of that course. The state is working with colleges and universities in Arkansas, which are still finalizing courses and curricula to meet the plan. As it now stands, teachers seeking the endorsement will need to earn a minimum score on the Praxis II for middle school math and complete a 15-hour program of study that includes content in numeration, computation, number theory, number sense, algebraic concepts, probability, data analysis, statistics, geometry, and advanced math or calculus concepts.

Proof of Delivery

Teachers should understand that algebra “is more than just processes, it’s a problem-solving endeavor,” said Debe Kincaid, an associate professor of math education at Southern Arkansas University who has worked with state officials on creating the algebra endorsement. “It requires not only a thorough understanding of Algebra 1, but also the content that comes before Algebra 1.”

Many teacher-candidates are already on track to complete the requirements for the endorsement, Ms. Kincaid noted. Some educators currently working in the classroom may have to pursue additional coursework, she said.

Henry Kepner, the president of the nctm, said he hadn’t heard of another state putting forward a similar algebra-specific endorsement. Schools and districts sometimes create their own, de facto requirements for math teachers leading certain math classes, typically on advanced topics, when parents and community officials want to make sure the class is of high quality, he said.

“A lot of it occurs when it’s a visible [course],” Mr. Kepner said.

The Arkansas endorsement seems like “a good compromise,” and an alternative to having “the high school teacher [running] over to the middle school for a couple hours,” Mr. Kepner added.

Cathy L. Seeley, a former NCTM president who is now a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, compared the Arkansas endorsement with the subject-specific certification that high school science teachers receive in biology, chemistry, or physics. Ms. Seeley wondered, however, if the idea of a course-specific math credential might draw resistance from school administrators, worried that it would restrict their ability to assign teachers to a wide range of math classes.

But Jean McGehee, a math professor who teaches education courses at the University of Central Arkansas, in Conway, predicted that the endorsement would prove popular among teachers who have been craving special recognition for being able to cover Algebra 1 material. There are many advantages to having middle school teachers present complex math to middle school students, she said.

Those teachers “know more about how to teach algebra to that age group,” Ms. McGehee said. Her undergraduate students, she said, “have been begging for a way to prove they could teach algebra.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as 8th Grade Algebra Teachers in Arkansas to Need State Nod

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