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Doing the Math

What it really takes to build a highly expert cadre of mathematics teachers

Over the last couple of decades, a significant goal of education reform has been to improve math teachers' subject knowledge and to improve the quality of their instruction through new standards and curriculum materials. But to get serious about building a pipeline of math teachers with high levels of expertise in their subject, policymakers should take steps to make the teaching profession more attractive as compared to other jobs, suggests a forthcoming paper from researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

The study — funded by a National Science Foundation grant and conducted by Heather Hill, Virginia Lovison, and Thomas Kelley-Kemple — found that more teachers scored well on an assessment measuring their mathematical teaching knowledge in 2016 than in 2005. But they found that the improvement appeared more tied to changes in the labor market than to policymakers’ efforts to strengthen the mathematics background of teachers. In particular, the uptick in teacher scores roughly correspond to the 2008 recession, when jobs became scarcer.

But that doesn’t mean policymakers have to wait until economic hard times to attract more qualified math teachers, says Hill, a HGSE professor. Instead, it suggests that if policymakers acted to make teaching a more attractive profession — one that paid more and offered better benefits than other professions requiring college degrees — there would be more highly qualified math teachers during all economies.

“Teachers respond to labor market signals, and if we were able to make teaching better compensated, if we were able to make teaching more attractive to individuals, we would be selecting a higher quality typical candidate.” – Heather Hill

“Teachers respond to labor market signals, and if we were able to make teaching better compensated, if we were able to make teaching more attractive to individuals, we would be selecting a higher quality typical candidate,” Hill said. “That’s doable,” she added, noting that teachers have organized to raise pay in states including West Virginia and Oklahoma. 

Her findings deepen a layer of research suggesting that elevating the teaching profession could go a long way to improving teaching. Another recent Harvard study showed that the recession improved teaching quality — according to teachers’ impact on standardized test scores — across subjects in the state of Florida, not just math.

Additional Findings

Teaching Requirements and Experience. Despite No Child Left Behind’s focus on ensuring adequate subject matter background through its high-quality teacher regulations, only 38 percent of math teachers possessed math-specific degrees in 2016, compared to 60 percent in 2005, so that focus doesn’t appear to underlie improvements on the math teaching assessment. Nor does experience: teachers in 2016, on average, had one fewer year of experience than in 2005, although, at both times, teachers with 10 or more years of experience had substantially more mathematical knowledge than other teachers.

Standards and Curricula. Part of policymakers’ goals with standards-based reform was to change, and improve, the materials that teachers taught with. And they did — but, for math teachers, it wasn’t necessarily for the better. In 2016, most teachers reported that they were not using conventional textbooks, with nearly one-fifth saying that they never used a published textbook. Instead, they use materials created with colleagues, in-person or online, through repositories like BetterLesson, and published supplemental materials (e.g., units or lessons from Math Solutions). But not everything found on the internet is high-quality, Hill warns. Math lessons work best when they’re built systematically, and it can be hard for teachers to build such a sequence of lessons on their own. Districts and states can help busy teachers by making it easier for them to find and access high-quality materials, Hill said.

Gaps are closing. Math teachers’ content knowledge in urban and rural schools improved far more than teachers in suburban schools between 2005 and 2016, closing a critical gap. A racial gap narrowed, too: the score for teacher content knowledge in schools where more than half of students were either African American or Latinx increased over two and a half times more than in schools where more than half of students were white. While teachers in suburban, more affluent neighborhoods tended to know more about their subject according to the researchers’ test, Hill said she was encouraged by this finding. “To see that there was movement there was really positive,” she said.

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