October 28, 2014
There are few topics in education policy that attract more attention than teacher preparation. Whatever resources we devote to education, and however many policy changes we enact such as the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics, at the end of the day it is teachers that are expected to play the essential role. It is of the utmost importance that we be able to identify what makes a good teacher, and more importantly, that we figure out how we can make people into better teachers. This brings us to the rub: Despite the sincere efforts of many researchers, we still lack a clear-cut understanding of what makes for a high-quality teacher preparation program. The evidence to date is mixed at best that traditional metrics of teacher quality – such as certification scores, higher degrees, experience, etc. – make a difference.
This is not to say that we don’t know anything. For example, we have good reason to believe that teachers who know and deeply understand the structure of mathematics are better at teaching those mathematics to students, and that students with greater exposure to such mathematics content tend to learn more math. These facts may seem obvious, but they lead to the insight that maybe one element in assessing teacher quality – at least in mathematics – would be to measure the amount of mathematics future teachers received in teacher preparation programs. In essence, to apply the same approach we knew that worked for student to their teachers.
The result of this work was the Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), comprising more than 23,000 future teachers in 16 countries – with more than 3,000 in the U.S. The TEDS-M asked future mathematics teachers about their preparation programs and tested their knowledge of mathematics content and pedagogy. The U.S. was also one of the few countries that conducted follow-up studies on teachers after they had entered the teaching workforce, allowing us to explore the long-term effects of teacher preparation programs.
Recent work based on this research revealed the existence of an international benchmark of what constitutes a quality curriculum for future middle school mathematics teachers. By examining the courses most commonly taken by future teachers at the world’s top-performing programs, we found a common pool of mathematics topics that defined a high-quality mathematics curriculum for future mathematics teachers.
The most striking finding was the very weak position of U.S. future mathematics teachers. Less than a third of future middle school teachers had taken eight of nine internationally benchmarked courses, compared with 75 percent in Taiwan and 87 percent in Russia. Further, there was tremendous variation in the mathematics training of U.S. future teachers. Those at the best U.S. programs did quite well, with more than three-quarters of future teachers reaching the benchmark. However, only 11 percent of future teachers at the lowest-performing programs were exposed to adequate mathematics – and these programs serve three-fifths of all future middle school mathematics teachers.
There are many valuable approaches for improving the quality of the American teaching force, but given the critical importance of middle school – where the foundations for more advanced mathematics are laid – these findings suggest that too many teachers are being shortchanged. Equally important, the existence of an international benchmark of teacher mathematics preparation opens the door to major improvements in the training of U.S. mathematics teachers.