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Picking Out The Good Ones

What makes a good math teacher?

That’s a question I was asking myself from the first day I started teaching the subject. I’m not sure I ever really came up with a good answer.

And, evidently, neither did the folks on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel according to a new report.

But when it came to drawing conclusions about the necessary skills and preparation of educators responsible for delivering that content, the report’s authors said much less is known.

On the one hand, effective math teachers have an impact on student achievement, the panel found. It cited a study showing that differences in the quality of teaching accounted for 12 percent to 14 percent of variation in students’ math achievement in elementary grades.

But the 90-page report also says it is hard to determine what credentials and training have the strongest effect on preparing math teachers to teach, and teach well. Research has not provided “consistent or convincing” evidence, for instance, that students of certified math teachers benefit more than those whose teachers do not have that licensure, it found.

Similarly, a weak connection exists between teachers’ college math coursetaking and the achievement of their students at the elementary level, though there was a stronger link between that educational background and high school achievement, the panel found.

While the creators of NCLB and others put a great deal of emphasis on teachers having solid knowledge of their subject matter (and little else), the writers of this study see a greater need for “mathematical knowledge for teaching”.

In other words, to be a good math teacher a person needs to know how to explain the math to kids, not necessarily all the deep dark corners of the subject.

Which means this could be the key to training a good math teacher. Or one of any subject.

There is a growing recognition of the need to give aspiring math teachers, particularly those who will teach in the early grades, college coursework that is tailored more specifically to working with students, rather than simply piling on more advanced math…

Maybe the politicians who write the rules will begin to understand that good teaching is less about holding the knowledge than the ability to explain it to an 11 year old.

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4 Comments

  1. Being able to explain math to kids on their level is the key. You are right. It’s also helpful to give credit when kids try but come up with the wrong answer. Just marking a problem wrong doesn’t encourage students to find their mistakes. Lots of patience is important too. I taught sixth grade math for fifteen years and loved it.

  2. Dave

    Maybe, instead of focusing strongly on identifying good teachers, we should be helping all teachers to improve. In college, students filled out teacher evaluations for each course — they were mostly ignored, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Could it happen? Would schools actually allot resources to the improvement process, or just gather the data, hand it to someone else, and forget about it?

  3. Cecelia

    You make a good point that good teaching is a complex process that goes beyond simple knowledge.

    Yet, knowledge and recall are the easiest parts of teaching to assess and the public demands simple measurements. So how do you convince the public that assessing teacher and school quality takes time and is complex at many levels?

    And whose responsibility is it to design and advocate for a more comprehensive assessment?

  4. Tim

    You make a good point, Cecelia, about convincing the public about the complexity of assessment, both of students and teachers. I’m not sure how you do that unless it involves a number that can be printed in a newspaper headline.

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