U.S. Teachers Not Well Prepared to Teach Mathematics, Study Finds

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Washington, D.C., April 15, 2010 — In a seminal study of international teacher preparation released today, researchers found a striking parallel between future U.S. teachers’ knowledge of mathematics content and the performance of the students they teach.

Led by education and mathematics experts at Michigan State University (MSU), the Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) is an international examination of how math teachers at both elementary and middle school levels are trained. Fielded internationally by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), USTEDS-M is funded by The Boeing Company, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the GE Foundation.

In the U.S., TEDS-M studied the performance of 81 public and private universities and colleges in 39 states that prepare elementary and middle school mathematics teachers. Nearly 3,300 future teachers were surveyed about their course work, knowledge of mathematics and their knowledge of how to teach the subject. Internationally, the Study spanned 16 countries, sampling 23,244 future teachers (14,766 future primary teachers and 8,478 future lower secondary teachers) across 498 educational institutions.

The study reveals that middle school mathematics teacher preparation is not up to the task. U.S. future teachers find themselves straddling the divide between the successful and the unsuccessful, leaving the U.S. with a national choice of which way to go.

The findings of USTEDS-M additionally revealed that the preparation of elementary teachers to teach mathematics was comparatively somewhat better as the U.S. found itself in the middle of the international distribution, along with other countries such as the Russian Federation, Germany and Norway, but behind Switzerland, Taiwan and Singapore.

“Our future teachers are getting weak training mathematically and are not prepared to teach the demanding curriculum needed for U.S. students to compete internationally,” said William Schmidt, Ph.D., MSU Distinguished Professor of Education and Statistics, who directed the Study.

The Problem of Middle School Teacher Certification

In the U.S., middle school teacher preparation is done through three types of certification programs: elementary programs receiving K-8 certification; middle school programs providing certification for grades 6-8 or 7-9; and secondary school programs certifying future teachers to teach grades 6 and 7 though 12.

USTEDS-M revealed that differences in middle school teacher certification have a great impact on the mathematical teaching capabilities of middle school teachers.

According to the Study, future middle school mathematics teachers prepared in programs focused on secondary schools (grades 6 and above) had dramatically and significantly greater mathematics knowledge scores than future middle school mathematics teachers prepared in other types of programs like those including certification in grade levels below grade 5. This finding underscores an important policy issue for states: How they define what is acceptable, or required, of those to be certified to teach mathematics at the middle school level.

“Such non-standardized teaching preparation of middle school teachers has major implications with respect to what future teachers have, in terms of opportunities both to learn mathematics and how to teach it,” Dr. Schmidt warned. “With respect to mathematics content and pedagogical content knowledge, future teachers prepared in secondary school programs substantially outperformed those in the other two programs — by almost by a full standard deviation.

“Increasing math course requirements by requiring future teachers to be prepared in secondary programs alone might not solve the problem,” Dr. Schmidt continued. “Such a requirement could have the unintended consequence of creating a shortage of middle school math teachers, as many interested in middle school might not want to be part of a secondary preparation program.”

Weakness in Mathematics Preparation

According to Dr. Schmidt, the real issue is how teachers are prepared: The courses they take and the experiences they have while in their preparation programs.

“Teacher preparation curricula are critical, not only for future teachers, but also for the children they will be teaching,” he noted. “The problem isn’t simply the amount of formal mathematics education our future teachers receive. It also involves studying the theoretical and practical aspects both of teaching mathematics and teaching in general.”

The TEDS-M findings support previous international research, including the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), showing average student achievement at third and fourth grade for the U.S., but low achievement in mathematics compared to other countries at seventh and eighth grade levels. TIMSS also links this low performance to a U.S. middle school curriculum that is unfocused and undemanding.

TEDS-M found that the top achieving countries on average allocated half of teacher preparation related course-taking of future middle school teachers specifically to the study of formal mathematics. The balance is allocated either to mathematics teaching (30%), which focuses on such things as how students learn mathematics and how it is best taught, or general pedagogy (20%), which includes instructional design, classroom management as well as foundation courses related to schooling.

By contrast, American institutions on average allocated 40% of the teacher curriculum to the study of mathematics — 10% less than higher ranked countries — with the remaining 60% split evenly between general and math teaching.

Two fundamental math courses form the gateway to the study of formal mathematics — linear algebra and a basic year-long sequence in calculus — as well as demonstrate the gap between the highest achieving countries and the rest of the pack. Top-performing countries had on average 90% or more of their future teachers taking both of these courses. By contrast, in the United States, only 66% of future middle school mathematics teachers studied linear algebra, with less than 55% taking the basic year-long sequence in calculus. The number of advanced mathematics courses taken also factors into teacher preparedness. The six top-achieving countries took two more courses in this area as well.

“We must break the cycle in which we find ourselves,” Dr. Schmidt cautioned. “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.”

The Future: Policy Change

According to Dr. Schmidt, the U.S. is facing a cycle in which a weak K-12 mathematics curriculum is taught by teachers with inadequate mathematics background. In turn, this, too, produces high school graduates who are similarly weak.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are completing work on more rigorous K-12 mathematics standards, called the “Common Core.” These standards, soon to be released, are expected to be adopted by a majority of the 48 states considering them. The “Common Core” attempts to standardize the K-12 curriculum and will require teachers, especially at the middle school levels, to have a deeper understanding of mathematics.

“This raises a serious policy question as to the type of certification rules and college requirements states should have for the preparation of middle school mathematics teachers,” Dr. Schmidt pointed out. “The problem must be addressed. We cannot make our mathematics curriculum more demanding without better equipping our teachers to teach it to all children.”

How U.S. teacher preparation is defined, in terms of courses taken, varies across universities and colleges. TEDS-M revealed that in this country, some of the teacher preparation institutions on average produced future teachers at a level commensurate with the performance of emerging and developing countries like Botswana, Georgia and Chile. However, other U.S. teaching institutions graduated future teachers with a knowledge level consistent with the average performance of some of the teacher preparation institutions in Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, Poland, Germany and Switzerland.

“Such variation is both encouraging and discouraging, for obvious reasons,” Dr. Schmidt concluded. “The superior levels of mathematics and pedagogical knowledge commensurate with the highest performing countries’ institutions — even after adjusting for differences in who enters the program — suggests that it can be done. However, the variability and the fact that there are some U.S. institutions where the average performance places them in the middle of the distribution for countries like Botswana underscores the depth of the problem.


“The solution to U.S. teacher and student improvement is a three-fold approach,” Schmidt advised. “First, we need recruitment and inducement for potential teachers with strong quantitative backgrounds, especially at the middle school level. Also, teaching certification programs must be standardized at the state level. Additionally, we need to implement standards with more demanding curricula, especially in mathematics, for all preparation programs and institutions.”

About Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)

The IEA is an association of national research institutions and government research agencies related to education. The IEA is an independent organization, founded in 1958 and headquartered in Amsterdam. Many policy-making decisions made in the field of education are influenced by IEA studies. The focus of the IEA is to conduct research studies of student performance in basic subjects such as math, science and reading. IEA studies measure performance between students of different countries and whether certain policies in a particular educational system cause positive or negative effects on learning.

About William H. Schmidt, PhD

William Schmidt is a University Distinguished Professor and currently Co-director of the Education Policy Center, as well as the interim director of the University wide Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education. He holds faculty appointments in education and in the Department of Statistics as well. Dr. Schmidt’s current writing and research concerns issues of academic content in K-12 schooling, assessment theory and the effects of curriculum on academic achievement. He is also concerned with educational policy related to mathematics, science and testing, in general. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the National Academy of Education.

About The Boeing Company

Headquartered in Chicago, Boeing employs more than 154,000 people in 70 countries and serves customers in 145 countries. Its product lines and services include commercial jetliners, military aircraft, rotorcraft, electronic and defense systems, missiles, satellites, launch vehicles and advanced information and communication systems.

About Carnegie Corporation of New York

Carnegie Corporation of New York is a philanthropic foundation created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 to do “real and permanent good in this world.”

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people — especially those with the fewest resources — have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the Foundation is led by CEO Jeff Raikes and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

About GE Foundation

GE Foundation, the philanthropic organization of the General Electric Company, works to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. In coordination with its partners, it supports U.S. and international education, developing health globally, the environment, public policy, human rights and disaster relief. In addition, GE Foundation supports GE employee and retiree giving and involvement in GE communities around the world. In 2009, the entire GE family — including businesses, employees, retirees and GE Foundation — contributed more than an estimated $220 million to community and educational programs, including more than $100 million from GE Foundation.