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