Cultivating “Specialists” in Elementary Math

By Sean Cavanagh — May 06, 2009 2 min read
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Elementary school teachers in this country, by and large, are generalists. That means they’re required to teach everything—math, science, language arts, history, you name it, regardless of how prepared they are in any particular subject. When it comes to math, a lot of people find that lack of expertise pretty troubling.

After all, many elementary teachers leave college having only taken one or two courses in math, at most. Their content knowledge may be pretty shaky, to put it mildly. Yet they’re also expected to provide the essential, ground-floor knowledge of math that young students need to prosper in more difficult math later in school.

Now a new effort is underway is create a cadre of math “specialists” at the elementary level. It’s part of a program at McDaniel College, in Maryland, being led by Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The “Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project” is offering master’s degrees in elementary math teacher leadership. Fennell hopes to expand the program and ensure the continuing development and mentoring of math “teacher leaders” in Maryland. He also wants to establish a “clearinghouse” of elementary math specialist programs nationally, to examine their practices, successes and challenges. A number of universities around the country have established endorsements and degrees for elementary math teachers. You can read descriptions of them here, along with various types of math certification offered by states. Eventually, Fennell hopes the work of the program will lead the state of Maryland to create certification for elementary, or K-8 math specialists. McDaniel College has been graduating students for years with elementary-specific math training, though they haven’t received state certification for expertise in that particular area, Fennell said.

By the way, yesterday Fennell and Vern Williams talked about elementary math specialists and many other issues during an Ed Week online “chat.” The focus of the discussion was the work of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which both of them served.

McDaniel will be revising its courses to try to determine what kind of preparation best suits elementary specialists. It will also be staging summer institutes to train educators working at that grade level. The project’s work will also be reviewed by an external evaluator. In addition, Fennell told me that he will be coordinating his work in Maryland with research being led by Deborah Ball (another former member of the national math panel) at the University of Michigan. He said his institute will develop “modules” to support the work of Michigan researchers on the essential content and classroom skills necessary for math teachers to prosper.

Do you think elementary “specialists” could play a role in improving the quality of math teaching? What barriers exist to bringing them into schools? And what key questions should the McDaniel College effort seek to answer?

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