Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

It looks like middle school math teachers can’t catch a break. According to a recent study, a significant percentage of math teachers in grades 5-8 do not have a degree or a certification in math. Sadly, the numbers are even worse for schools in low income areas. While it’s certainly true that you don’t need a math degree to teach middle school math effectively, the data does suggest that there is a significant bloc of underqualified math teachers trying to impart essential knowledge to these young students.

Of course, I doubt this is all the teachers’ fault – elementary and middle school teachers are a rare commodity in this country, and kids need someone to teach them math. An understaffed school will do what it takes to make sure there’s somebody at the front of the classroom. And I certainly don’t envy those teachers out there who may not feel so confident in their math ability, but are nevertheless trying to impart all that mathematical know-how because nobody else will.

One thing that is a little confusing is that when this story made the news rounds, most headlines made a statement like: Teachers are only one chapter ahead of their students. The press release for the study, however, makes no such claims – instead, the main point seems to be simply that there are too many teachers without a major or a certificate in the subject they are teaching. This, of course, is an issue that needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t seem to be nearly as dramatic as the headlines would claim. If you’ve taught 6th grade math for five years, even without a certificate or a major, chances are you certainly know the material well enough that you aren’t only one chapter ahead, even if you are a lousy teacher. Similarly, some people have a natural talent for teaching, and can become good math teachers even without much of a mathematical background – just ask The Wire‘s Roland Pryzbylewski.

Math teachers in action. You can tell Pryzbylewski means business.
Bottom line: we need more qualified teachers, no doubt. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to worry about underqualified teachers, because the hiring pool would be large enough to fill schools with the right people. But in the meantime, blaming the teacher for being unqualified fails to get at the heart of our education problems, and so headlines like “Your kid’s teacher is only one chapter ahead!” tend to favor shock value over constructive discussion of the study involved or the problems we face.

Whatever sells papers, I guess.

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2 comments to Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

  • lapinagile

    It’s kind of funny that anyone would think that you could be a mere chapter ahead in middle school math. It’s not as if they’re learning trig or calculus or complex analysis or anything hard. If you’re only one chapter ahead of a middle schooler in math, then you’ve got some significant educational failings.

  • Matt

    No doubt. It’s one thing to say a math teacher is unqualified because he/she doesn’t have certification – it’s quite another to basically accuse them of not understanding long division or basic algebra.

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