Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Do You Want Your Kid's Math Teacher To Have A Math Degree?

Maybe you shouldn't, according to this author:

Ask a parent, politician, or school board member to describe the ideal qualifications of a math teacher, and most would probably rank having a college major in that subject high on the list.

Yet when it comes to improving student learning in elementary and middle school, research shows that the value of that academic credential is limited—at best.

On the one hand, recent nationwide test scores show middle school students taught by a teacher with an undergraduate mathematics major scoring better, on average, in that subject than those whose teachers did not have that degree. Yet many observers view those results with caution, saying the weight of evidence does not show a connection between teachers’ having majored in math and higher student math achievement, particularly before high school...

Math teachers need to “know the subject matter well and how to teach it,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a scholar who has studied math teaching extensively. “The problem is that the math major is not a good proxy for that.”

An in-depth knowledge of math is necessary, but not sufficient, for being a good math teacher. There's much more to teaching than just content knowledge.

But let's not downplay the importance of content knowledge.


Ellen K said...

There's no question that knowledge of material is important, especially at the secondary level. But the ability to deliver the information is also important. There are gifted teachers who can overcome their lack of knowledge by seeking more information to improve their students' success. There are also highly educated individuals that cannot explain in a way that connects to students. An example was a highly gifted math major who because it was his first year, was put in charge of the lowest freshmen math class-a sort of remedial pre-algebra. He was very intelligent, but he lived in such a rare strata of thought that he could not understand why students who struggled in math wouldn't love it as much as he did. He ended up leaving after one semester. He now teachers in a community college. It made me sad, but there is a skill set that goes beyond subject knowledge that makes a good teacher.

Anonymous said...

This goes to the heart of the art and science of teaching. At the end of the day what is important is what does the kid walk out of the class being able to do.

The first rule of teaching is, know your subject matter. But nobody ever completely knows their subject matter. It's a moving target. I scramble every day to keep up with my little corner of science.

We all know people who know it but can't teach it very well. And we know people who may know less but teach more.

Just musing here.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that the abilities to connect with students and teach students are central. However, the last point of the post is that academic knowledge is de-emphasized. This is sadly true in the current teaching climate where teachers talk mainly about methodology, strategy, and activities. In the eleven years I have taught I can count on one hand the number of discussions I've had with secondary teachers regarding anything academics.

Cranberry said...

Can anyone give a link to the actual studies which show lower rates of effectiveness for math majors? I mean linked to test results, not the opinions of professors of education.

There's a huge problem for me in trying to get a handle on this. How is "math major" defined? According to one source I found, there were only 12,363 bachelors' degrees in math awarded in 1998. In 2005, there were an estimated 285,000 new teacher hires (that year alone!) Even if all the math majors entered education (doubtful), they wouldn't be a large enough proportion of the whole to make a difference. I also wonder if the sample of "math major" teachers was large enough to be statistically reliable.

There's also the question of how "math major" is defined. If you have a degree in math, many fields open to you. Most of those fields will eventually pay much better than teaching. Which math majors choose to enter the field of education? Also, I venture to say that a math major from MIT will have had more math than an average math major from the local community college or ed school.

Then, as well, there are many majors which are not "math," but require a firm grasp of mathematics, such as most scientific subjects, computer science majors, pre-med, and many business majors. I'd like to see the study, because I suspect that part of the effect (or lack thereof) depends upon the definition of "math major."