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Don't Blame The Teachers...

Oct 8, 2017

Don’t Blame the Teachers that Math in Elementary School is in Shambles


It’s no secret that our nation’s youth are not keeping up in math with students from other developed nations. ( ) The problem starts in elementary school. Elementary school math lays the foundation for more advanced math topics. If kids go into secondary school with learning gaps in math, they will really struggle in advanced math topics. Industry leaders and secondary math teachers all say math instruction for elementary age students must improve. The issue is very complex but this article attempts to explain some of the main problems.


Elementary Classroom Teachers Have Enormous Responsibilities

At Mathnasium of Poway we admire elementary classroom teachers for what they do every day. Effective teachers have extensive knowledge in two areas:

1.     The subject matter they teach

2.     Pedagogy, or how to teach the subject matter.


In elementary school the typical classroom teacher is responsible for teaching students in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. The teacher’s knowledge of each subject matter must extend way beyond what they expect the students to learn. Subject matter knowledge is useless if the teacher doesn’t know how to teach their students, known as pedagogy. Pedagogy includes topics such as understanding the foundational concepts of each subject and how to build on those foundational concepts, child development, how to motivate children, and learning theory. That’s only enough knowledge for teachers to be effective with one student.

Most classrooms have 25 or more children. So teachers must also help kids navigate peer relationships and honor multicultural differences. It helps if teachers can soothe a crying child and have a high tolerance for bodily fluids. Oh, and they should love children.  


What Does It Take to Become a Teacher?

96% of public school teachers in the US earned at least a bachelor’s degree. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, they usually also earn a teaching credential. Pre-service teachers take courses in both pedagogy and in subject matter to earn a teaching credential. But do teacher certification programs in the U.S. give pre-service teachers enough training in math?


Preparing an Elementary School Teacher for Teaching Math

Let’s start with some facts about elementary school teacher preparation.

1)  About 50% elementary school teachers majored in elementary education. This major is specifically designed to prepare a teacher for teaching all subject matters. Most teacher colleges confer an elementary education degree without requiring the pre-service teacher to take an advanced level math class, such as calculus. (

2)  The other 50% of elementary teachers majored in a different subject and then earned their teaching certification. ( )

3)  A person with a major in humanities or elementary education could graduate and earn a teaching certificate without ever taking an advanced level math class, such as calculus. A teacher who earned a degree in math or science has demonstrated an ability in advanced math. We did an informal survey of current elementary teachers and had 134 current respondents. 21 or 16% majored in math or science. The other 113 may, or may not, have taken an advanced math class.

5)  Most teacher certification programs and exams in the U.S. do not require a pre-service teacher to demonstrate a high degree of math proficiency. ( )


Are Teacher Colleges to Blame?

Not entirely. According to The Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), pre-service teachers in the U.S. take about the same amount of math as the higher performing nations, like Taiwan. The difference between teachers in places like Taiwan and the U.S. actually is the level of mathematical competence when teachers enter the teacher training program. In other words, our elementary school teachers never got great math instruction themselves. So we have a cycle of poor math instruction leading to poor math skills.

To make matters even more complex, faulty belief systems about mathematical abilities plagues our society. Despite popular belief, almost anyone can learn advanced math with proper time and instruction. These faulty belief systems have held back women and minorities for generations.  These beliefs get passed on to the next generation. The good news is that the educational community is working to improve both math instruction and disabling beliefs.


Math Wars: The Conflict Between Mathematicians and Education Professors

Math wars refers to disagreements between mathematicians and educators about the best way to teach math. Mathematicians have a deep understanding of math, but they don’t often pay attention to the latest developments in child development and pedagogy. Education professors have a thorough understanding of pedagogy but lack a deep understanding of advanced math.  As stated in the beginning, effective teachers must know both pedagogy and the subject. So since the mathematicians and the education professors can’t decide how best to teach math, school teachers are stuck in the middle.

Even when the experts do agree, it takes a long time to implement any reform. Textbook publishers, teacher colleges, state education departments, local school districts, and finally the teachers all have to work together to implement any meaningful reform.


Ack! What a Mess. What’s the Solution?

Many solutions are being studied by a variety of task forces. None of the solutions will be simple or easy. Some of the proposed ideas, such as increasing salaries for teachers to attract more talent, are politically charged as well.


So How Can a Parent Ensure their Kids Get Great Math Instruction?

Bring your child to Mathnasium of Poway for supplemental math instruction. Our instructors have proven math competence and they use our specialized pedagogical system and curriculum. (See: The Mathnasium Method©) Kids get the instruction they need because of our individual instruction model. Our only job is to make math make sense! We do it well. (See: Our Results)  


Give us a call today. (858) 513-7887