Teacher Preparation

Future U.S. Teachers Rank in Middle on Math Tests

New International Comparison Eyes Elementary and Middle School Levels
By Debra Viadero — April 16, 2010 5 min read
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Future elementary and middle school math teachers in the United States, on average, earned middling scores, compared with their counterparts in 15 other countries, on a new test designed to gauge their skills in that subject.

The findings from the first Teacher Education Study in Mathematics, or TEDS-M, were unveiled last week at a press conference in Washington.

Among the world’s aspiring elementary teachers, the results show that American college students nearing the end of their teacher-preparation programs performed “neither particularly low, nor particularly strong.” They scored at rates similar to those of future teachers in Germany, Norway, and Russia, but not on par with typically high-achieving countries such as Taiwan and Singapore.

At the middle school level, however, the study contends that the next generation of teachers fared slightly worse, landing “on the divide between countries in which students usually do well on international math exams and those that don’t.” U.S. teachers-to-be outperformed their counterparts in Botswana, Chile, and the Republic of Georgia, for example, but trailed far behind the top-scoring Taiwanese teacher-preparation students.

“We must break the cycle in which we find ourselves,” said William H. Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, during a Webcast held to announce the findings. He oversaw the U.S. portion of the study, which surveyed 3,300 future teachers in 80 public and private colleges.

“A weak K-12 mathematics curriculum in the U.S., taught by teachers with an inadequate mathematics background, produces high school graduates who are at a disadvantage. When some of these students become future teachers and are not given a strong background in mathematics during teacher preparation, the cycle continues,” he added.

Both Mr. Schmidt and Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the results bolster the case for teaching all students to higher math standards—a feat they hope to help accomplish with the common-core academic standards being developed now by the CCSSO and the National Governors Association.

“This study gives us decision points and directions we didn’t have before,” Mr. Wilhoit said. Those, he added, might include revising teacher-certification requirements and re-examining teacher-preparation programs.

Pedagogical Knowledge Tested

The first international study of teacher preparation, the TEDS-M is being overseen by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which also conducts the larger Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. As part of the two-year teacher-preparation study, the international researchers surveyed more than 23,300 teachers in 16 countries, measuring both their subject-matter knowledge and “pedagogical-content knowledge”—specialized knowledge about how best to convey particular skills and facts to students at particular ages. (The American teachers performed slightly better in the latter category, compared with their international peers.)

Besides the United States, participating jurisdictions included: Botswana, Chile, Georgia, Germany, Malaysia, Norway, Oman, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.

In the United States, Mr. Schmidt’s analysis was financed by the Boeing Co. of Chicago ; the Carnegie Corp. of New York; the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the GE Foundation, based in Fairfield, Conn.

As part of the study, the researchers also compared the teacher-preparation curricula across participating countries. In both elementary and middle school teacher-preparation programs, it found, future teachers in the United States spent less time than their counterparts in better-performing countries studying math content, as opposed to learning general pedagogy or pedagogical skills specific to teaching math.

But the average differences between the American teacher-preparation students and those in better-performing nations were greater at the middle school level. There, U.S. students devoted 40 percent of their coursework to math, 30 percent to math pedagogy, and 30 percent to general pedagogy.

In Taiwan and Russia, in comparison, the corresponding breakdown, on average, came to 50 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent.

Certification Type Counts

Nearly all the future middle school teachers in the four highest-achieving countries also studied linear algebra and calculus, the study found. In the United States, half to two-thirds of that group had taken classes in those topics.

More so than in some other countries, the study also found, the average performance of aspiring middle school teachers varied from institution to institution across the United States, with some producing graduates who perform on par with those from Botswana and others with students scoring more in line with Singapore’s future teachers.

“It looks like one-third of our schools perform just as well as anybody else,” said Henry S. “Hank” Kepner Jr., a professor of mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The study also points to a link between the kind of certification prospective teachers sought and their scores on the math test at the middle school level. Students working toward getting certified to teach 6th or 7th through 12th grade tended to outscore teachers pursuing either a K-8 certificate or one aimed just at the middle grades.

Some experts also warned, however, that giving all teachers-in-training more math, or more advanced math, might not necessarily lead to improved learning for students.

“The math content itself isn’t going to solve the problem, but it’s an important piece we should be looking at as we move forward,” said Mr. Kepner.

A better way to go, the report suggests, might be to recruit students with stronger math skills into teaching or develop math “specialists” to work in elementary and middle schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Aspiring U.S. Teachers Rank in Middle on Global Math Test

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