New Book Tries to Define ‘Highly Skilled’ for Math Teachers

Districts and states around the country have never agreed on what makes one a “high-quality” mathematics teacher, and now the American children are paying the price for that kind of inconsistency. That is the argument of William H. Schmidt, an expert in math education at Michigan State University, in his new book Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools. Schmidt writes that there’s no consensus on how to define this measure of teaching competence, even though the No Child Left Behind Act requires district to report the number of their teachers who are highly qualified.

This means that while all the schools, districts and states are striving — or at least are saying they are striving — to improve the quality of mathematics instruction, everyone seems to be playing by different, and sometimes widely divergent, rules.

Although improving the quality of teachers and teaching is a common cry when we seek to improve schools, there is little agreement and scant empirical evidence that indicates what characteristics define a high-quality mathematics teacher. Even an obvious definition, such as a knowledge of mathematics, is problematic, since there is generally no agreement as to what specific mathematics knowledge is needed.

To add a little certitude to the conversation, Schmidt and his research group went directly to teachers to understand how they themselves assess their own preparedness. By asking what knowledge they feel is necessary to consider themselves qualified, people can begin to set at least minimum requirements on teacher preparedness.

In all, 4,000 teachers at all levels were polled, and the results differed greatly depending on grade the teachers taught. But across broad categories like elementary school, middle school and high school, the responses were consistent enough to warrant at least some conclusions, especially about teachers assigned to 1st through 3rd grade.

Primary teachers felt academically prepared to teach only the topics they taught to their students. Even for those topics, about one-fourth to one-half of the teachers surveyed reported that they did not feel well prepared. The teachers we surveyed were from 60 PROM/SE districts located in Michigan and Ohio.

Is it reasonable for teachers to focus only on the topics that they will teach? However reasonable such a position may appear, many of the more advanced topics for which teachers did not feel well prepared provide the mathematics background necessary to be truly well prepared to teach the more elementary topics at their grade level. To define a qualified teaching force, we adopted a criterion of 75% of teachers feeling well prepared to teach a given topic. We found that, over all sampled teachers, only two mathematics topics met this criterion: the meaning of whole numbers, including place value and operations with whole numbers.