Tough standards needed for U.S. math teachers

October 4, 2013

photo 2_4Rigorous standards for math teacher preparation are needed to improve the quality of future math teachers in the United States – and the overall math instruction in K-12 schools, argues a Michigan State University scholar.

New research led by William Schmidt shows some teacher education programs in the United States rank among the best in the world, but the programs that perform the worst are producing more than 60 percent of the nation’s future middle school math teachers.

“Some teachers are getting a world-class preparation, but far too many just don’t have the mathematics background they need to succeed in the classroom,” said Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor of education and statistics. “We have such large variation that we really need to think seriously about standards for teacher preparation.”

Schmidt presented his research during NBC News’ fourth annual “Education Nation” Summit in New York. His talk, “Master Class: An Examination of Our Future Teachers,” can be viewed online.

Schmidt and colleagues analyzed data from the Teacher Education and Development Study-Mathematics, which included 23,000 future teachers in 900 programs across 17 countries. The team also conducted follow-up surveys with more than 2,000 of the U.S. participants.

The researchers found there were nine “core” courses consistently taken by high-achieving prospective middle school teachers in the top 10 percent of training programs worldwide. They identified a similar set of coursework in mathematics and math teaching methods for elementary teachers. In the United States, only one in seven future middle school teachers and just over half of future elementary teachers had taken all of these international benchmark courses.

Once teachers begin teaching, the least-prepared graduates are more likely to teach in schools serving a high percentage of students in poverty, the researchers found. The best-prepared teachers, those whose preparation included most of the international benchmark courses, were significantly less likely to work in high-poverty schools and reported feeling more confident to teach math topics.

“We found there is a significant relationship between what classes teachers took in their teacher preparation programs and how well prepared they were two years into their teaching careers,” Schmidt said. “We’ve shown that many future teachers don’t receive an adequate background in mathematics, but we’ve also learned that a better grounding in mathematics is related to performance over the long term—both for the teachers and, hopefully, their students.”

For more information, watch a video of Schmidt discussing the research, read the study’s Executive Summary or download the Working Paper.

Schmidt is director of the new Center for the Study of Curriculum (CSC) at MSU, which houses several research projects related to curriculum in K-12 schools, assessment and the effects of curriculum on academic achievement.

For more information about NBCUniversal News Group’s “Education Nation” programs, including the National Summit Oct. 6-8 at New York Public Library, visit

Monday’s panelists discussing teacher preparation will include Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at University of Michigan, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University, and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.