MMSD Math Task Force Report, Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

From the International Slide Rule Museum

From the International Slide Rule Museum (click on image to visit).

In anticipation of next week’s public discusions of the Mathematics Task Force Report, I’ve been dipping into parts of that document.  So far, the section I’ve looked closest at  — Teacher Preparation — is pretty disappointing.  It isn’t that I disagree or agree with the conclusions (I don’t have much of an opinion), it is that the work is superficial and read closely provides little or no support for either the assertions made or the recommendations.

The introductory section on “information concerning recommendations from research reports and professional organizations for the mathematical preparation of middle school mathematics teacher” is generally fine and the review of requirements and programs in Wisconsin and neighboring states is also adequate.  However, it is worth noting that even this part of the report begins with an untested assumption that the middle schools are the proper area of focus.  Additionally  as one researcher observed “what counts as subject matter knowledge and how it relates to student achievement remains inadequately specified.”    In other words, we don’t know what what teachers should know to  improve achievement (the MMSD report indirectly touches on complexities of defining what teachers should know but does not acknowledge how thin the research base linking teacher preparation to achievement is).

Where the report is lacking is in the assessment of the appliabicality of this material to MMSD.  This is done in only the most cursory manner.

The main recommendations on teacher preparation — prioritizing “hiring middle school mathematics teachers who have advanced preparation in mathematics” (later clarified to mean “completing mathematics coursework that focuses on enhancing teachers’ understanding of the mathematical content that they teach“) and providing “increased opportunities for middle school mathematics teachers to enhance their knowledge of mathematics for teaching middle school but also require participation by more (if not all) middle school mathematics teachers” —  seem reasonable.  The real question is how much of a priority should these be, how pressing is the need.

There isn’t much here that helps answer that question.

As far as I can tell the recommendations and analysis are mostly a simplified version of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) 2001 report The Mathematical Education of Teacher applied to MMSD without any real consideration of the situation in Madison.

This is most obvious in the use of “middle grades” to mean grades 5-8, when MMS middle schools are grades 6-8.  Therefore, the recommendations, which are focused on the “middle grades,” are not aligned with how Madison defines the middle grades.  You’d think that at some point, someone would have said “Let’s make this fit Madison and use their definition.”  They didn’t and instead stuck with what is the arbitrary definition used in the CBMS (for the arbitrariness of this definition, see Chapter 4, footnote one of the CBMS report).

In and of itself, this isn’t a big deal.  However, it is illustrative of a larger problem.  The whole teacher preparation section is an exercise in forcing Madison into preconceived ideas about what is wrong with and what needs to be done about Math education, with little attention given to assessing what is wrong with and what needs to be done with Math education in Madison.  That many of the ideas appear to be supported more by belief than evidence compounds the problem.

Taking a cue from the popular simplistic international comparisons induced crisis mentality, (for  example see the multiple citations of this report, which despite looking only at the coincidence of teacher preparation differences  and TIMMS score differences  —  think of all the other possible reasons for the achievement differences  —  says it is “premature” to “make recommendations to change the nature of US middle school teacher preparation in mathematics.”), in the introductory section, in support of the lead recommendation the MMSD report asserts  ‘The adequacy of teacher preparation is a significant problem that cannot be solved without a substantial investment in mathematics content-based professional development and a change in hiring priorities at the district level.”  There is almost no evidence offered to support this assertion.

In the teacher preparation section a caveat is added:  “it is questionable whether most of the MMSD middle school mathematics teachers possess the depth of mathematical knowledge required for effectively teaching middle school mathematics .” (emphasis added, there are many caveats in this section).

“Questionable” isn’t good enough in these days of scarce resources.

Despite an extensive survey of teachers, the only attempt to assess the mathematical knowledge and training of our teacher corps is a simple counting of those who have been certified by DPI in the subject area.  One recommendation of the report is that the certification process needs to be expanded and improved, so the report itself recognizes the inadequacy of that measure.  Moreover, certification in subject areas confers no advantages under the current teacher contract, so it is very possible that additional MMSD teachers meet the certification requirements but have not bothered to go through the process.

Certification is a much less important than knowledge.  Any agenda concerning teacher preparation should begin with the recommendation that MMSD find out how prepared our teachers are, if they know the things that research shows make them better teachers, improve achievement.  Pretty simple.

I would suggest starting with the materials being developed by the Learning Mathematics for Teaching Project at the University of Michigan or a similar inventory.  Let’s find out what our teachers know and don’t know before deciding that the solution involves teachers who know more.  Our teachers may be lacking or they may not.  Until that question is answered, the task force recommendations are unsupported and unsupportable.

As a former task force member, I am sympathetic to the constraints of the work, but this task force had grant money, professional consultants and other resources that set the bar higher.  Under these circumstances, the section on teacher preparation is woefully inadequate and disappointing.

One last clarification, I have not looked at the other sections of the report extensively and my criticisms of this section may not be indicative of the report as a whole.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, education, Local News, Uncategorized

6 responses to “MMSD Math Task Force Report, Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

  1. T Mulligan, NBCT

    Perhaps the problem here is that you are looking too much at “math skills” of teachers, and not enough at teaching skills. To ensure the skills, impose a strong math test that teachers must pass before getting credentials from the state.

    The larger problem is how to determine if these teachers can communicate what they know. Can they get around the room and address students’ questions? Can they explain a concept in ways which reach learners with different learning styles? Can they read achievement data and react appropriately to it? A good teacher can impart 18 months of math content in a year; a bad teacher, 6 months. This has less than do than one might think with the teacher’s command of content.

    Don’t focus too much on how much math a teacher knows, focus on if they can teach. Consider reviewing NBPTS standards for teaching.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure who you mean by “you,” me or the Task Force.

      I have looked at the NBPTS and was impressed.

      I’ll give the Task Force credit for including much about the issue you raise in their discussion. I’ll also note that most of this is lost in the recommendations.

  2. T Mulligan, NBCT

    Sorry if I misused the “you”. I meant the task force.

    In addition, I’d add that the tenure system, in as much as it grants tenure too early, is a part of the problem. Districts need as much or more than five years to properly evaluate a candidate, and new teachers–who might become excellent–may not demonstrate their potential early. Its just too hard to see the potential in a candidate by the scores they received in college math courses.

    Real reform in teacher quality might begin with solid partnerships between universities and school districts which were designated as “teaching districts”–like teaching hospitals. Here, apprentice teachers would spend most of their preperation day in classrooms with students, not discussing isolated theory or creating phantom lesson plans outside of the reality of the classroom.

  3. Finding teachers who are good at math is more important than finding teachers who have learned about teaching math. Much of what is being taught to mathematics teachers is based on shoddy and preliminary research, much of which appear to be fads.

    Of course, finding a teacher who is both good at math and has also studied teaching is even better, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose “good at math”.

  4. T Mulligan, NBCT


    I guess the point is that teachers are different than mathmaticians. Math teachers must be good at math. I would assume that states need gateway tests that can rule out candidates that cannot spot the types of errors you identify in the post on your blog. However, to be a math teacher, one must also be able to do the things that good teachers do. Without the second, the first is useless.

  5. I could not agree more. I know several math teachers with national honors that I would consider “poor teachers”. Their knowledge was superb and were wonderful with a particular group of high end students, but were unable to help the kids who just didn’t “get it”.

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