Special Report

In Light of Common Core, Ed. Schools Look to Transform Math-Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 10, 2014 6 min read
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Even in higher education, where knowledge-sharing is prized, institutions have a tendency to take a protective approach to adapting to change. But what if colleges’ and universities’ collective expertise in a particular program area were harnessed toward meeting a common challenge?

That’s essentially the thinking behind an unusual cross-institution partnership now working to improve the preparation of middle and high school math teachers for the changes wrought by the Common Core State Standards for mathematics.

The Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership, or MTEP, a project of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, is bringing together 38 teams of university and community college faculty and K-12 educators from across the states.

Starting last year, the teams began developing and testing different initiatives to reform teacher preparation in math, working out kinks across different types of institutions, and laying out plans to support recommended changes broadly in education schools.

The project embraces the emerging study of “improvement science"—how organizations and systems get better over time. And it builds on the notion in that field that contextual variation—in MTEP’s case, state teacher-prep curricular requirements, faculty structure, size, and geographic location—should be embraced for the insights it can provide into how, and under what conditions, specific reforms will flourish or fail.

“By having a group doing this together, we can try these approaches across more than one context, do a little more careful data collection to see if this is just a change that feels better, or whether it’s a genuine improvement,” said W. Gary Martin, a professor of mathematics education at Auburn University, in Alabama, and a co-director of the project.

Complex Challenges

Observers have tended to focus on the changes to elementary-level math brought on by the common core, but the standards pose unique challenges in secondary mathematics, too. For one, they envision an integrated sequence of high school math courses as an alternative to the familiar Algebra 1-geometry-Algebra 2 sequence.

And there are additional, context-specific challenges where teacher preparation is concerned. Secondary math is one of the harder licensing fields in which to attract enough strong teacher-candidates, with current data suggesting that one in six secondary schools in the United States reports having difficulties filling faculty openings in the subject. In school districts, capable mentor teachers able to guide green candidates are frequently in short supply.

Higher education structures bring their own wrinkles, with program coursework spanning a sometimes-uneasy balance between content classes taught by the arts and sciences faculty and teaching-methods courses taught by education faculty.

Faced with those complexities, the MTEP participants have organized themselves into five different research- action committees, or RACs, each addressing a different facet of mathematics preparation. And, in contrast to the spilled-molasses pace of many higher education undertakings, they’re already starting to seek answers.

This school year, RAC teams are piloting a variety of approaches in their colleges. And as certain methodologies emerge as beacons of best practice, the RACs will promote them throughout the network of participating colleges.

The teams in the RAC studying clinical experiences, for instance, are trying three variations in their respective colleges on how to give aspiring teachers more effective opportunities to practice their skills.


Participants in the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership are piloting new approaches across several dozen universities in the following areas:

Developing Effective Clinical Experiences
Testing a variety of models for giving teachers hands-on practice in their internships.

Refining Courses
Developing specialized math and statistics courses for secondary-mathematics teachers that couple subject-matter knowledge with connections to pedagogy.

Instilling Active Learning
Ensuring that freshman and sophomore math courses include opportunities to engage in the Standards for Mathematical Practice (including modeling with math, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, and constructing mathematical arguments).

Attracting Teacher Hopefuls
Developing marketing techniques to attract high-quality secondary-math candidates, including from underrepresented groups.

Deepening Assessments
Developing valid and reliable assessments measuring candidates’ grasp of the specialized knowledge needed for secondary-math teaching.

In the first, two teacher-candidates are paired with one mentor teacher. In the second, one aspiring teacher and his or her mentor plan and co-teach lessons together. Finally, a third set of teams is crafting tasks to help candidates understand the standards’ emphasis on mathematical modeling and reasoning. They are also testing the classroom observations and other field-based projects that typically precede the actual semester or year of formal student-teaching.

“We want to know what the major outcomes are for the participating teacher-candidates, the benefits that mentors gain from participating, and how it impacts the secondary students in the classes as well,” said Marilyn E. Strutchens, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Auburn University and a co-director of the RAC.

Another RAC is focused on active learning of mathematics—a term that generally means grappling with real-world conundrums—in foundational math courses for teacher-candidates. Again, the approaches differ across teams and institutions.

Testing New Approaches

Participants in Colorado and Nebraska are working on developing “tact-ivities” to supplement math textbooks with hands-on problems that aim to build deeper understanding of key concepts like functions. In its sections on college algebra, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is using lesson plans, first developed by scholars at the University of Michigan, to ensure that such tasks are included.

Yet another RAC is wrestling with the sequence and content of mathematics-education courses, hoping to push them closer to the recommendations of a recent report by the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella organization for more than a dozen math associations. Among other things, that report calls for prospective middle school teachers to take specialized courses with an emphasis on what’s called “mathematical knowledge for teaching.”

“One of the ideas is that what you need to know in order to teach well is different from what you need to know to be a young engineer or economist,” said Jim Lewis, a professor of mathematics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who works with the active-learning RAC. “In mathematics, you are often trying to synthesize knowledge. As a teacher, you’re trying to pull apart knowledge and understand why people have difficulty learning.”

Given differences in state coursework requirements, participants in the working group plan to craft modules of three to five weeks in length that could be plugged into a variety of existing courses. Some of the themes they’re working on include: transformational geometry; statistics; mathematical modeling; and abstract algebra.

So far, the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership has attracted considerable outside support. It has received $1 million from the Helmsley Charitable Trust and has been chosen for study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a proponent of the networked approach to system improvement and an adviser to the partnership.

Having the support of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities is another advantage.

“It really elevates awareness of the project,” Auburn University’s Mr. Martin said. “There is an institutional commitment to involvement. If I get a message from the APLU, my dean and provost care about that message.”

Even so, participants say they have a high bar for success. It isn’t enough, they say, for MTEP to produce better secondary math teachers; it also has to create a fundamentally different way of approaching math teaching across education schools.

After all, reasoned Mr. Lewis, the teacher-candidates of today could go on to be the Ph.D.s and education professors of tomorrow.

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Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Changes Eyed for Math-Teacher Prep


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