ALGEBRA FOR ALL The Push for Higher Math

An Addition to the Classroom

With Undertrained Elementary Teachers, More Schools Turn to Specialists

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008; Page B01

It might be difficult to remember a time when this question would give you pause: Which number is greater, 43 or 23? But a first-grade class at McNair Elementary School in Herndon one fall morning was batting about .500.

Behind the missed answers lay confusion about what "greater than" means and what the 4 in 43 is worth compared with the 3. Students struggled to justify their responses. So teacher Danielle Cimino called in a math coach, armed with two dozen baggies of counting blocks, to help.

As pressure mounts to prepare elementary students for high-stakes tests and for algebra in middle school, the focus on instilling math's most basic skills is intensifying. Many elementary schools are turning to math specialists or coaches to add expertise to a teaching workforce dominated by generalists who, studies show, are vastly under-prepared in math.

Elementary teachers often relish their reading lessons but lack the same confidence when it comes to math, experts say. Specialists attempt to fill the knowledge or enthusiasm gap by working with classroom teachers to improve skills. In some schools, they take over math instruction.

Incoming teachers typically don't think high-level math will add much to lessons on counting or shapes, said Beth Rodriguez, the McNair Elementary math coach. But once they start fielding questions about place value or fractions, she said, "they see they need to know it at a deeper level."

There are far fewer math specialists than reading specialists, but their ranks have grown over the past decade.

Arlington County and Alexandria have at least one part-time math specialist in every elementary school, and Fairfax County has more than 70 in elementary or middle schools. Montgomery County has "math content coaches" in about 50 elementary schools; Prince George's County has 20 coaches; and traditional D.C. public schools have 50. Many math specialists in the area work in high-poverty schools and are funded by the federal government. Other positions are paid for locally and subject to budget pressures.

Slim math requirements for new teachers add to the challenge. A study this year from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that entrance exams for teacher preparation programs typically test elementary or middle-grade math and set low pass rates. Elementary candidates are expected to take zero to six math courses, depending on the program.

Many teachers-in-training harbor bad math memories, said Jennifer Suh, an assistant professor of math education at George Mason University. Suh begins her classes "almost like a therapy session," she said, where she asks the aspiring teachers to talk about their math education. Some recalled suffering through work sheets or getting stuck in lower-level classes.

Math anxieties or dislikes "transcend when they are teaching," Suh said, so she tries to encourage a positive disposition before she reteaches early math lessons, emphasizing comprehension over memorization.

Mastery of calculus is not necessary to teach multiplication, but elementary teachers must understand enough algebra, geometry and probability to see how beginning skills link to more complex ones, educators say. To tackle abstract math in middle school -- a major goal for educators nationwide -- students should be comfortable with whole numbers and fractions. Many adults have trouble with the latter.

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, said teachers need to understand math in a way it is rarely taught: going beyond rules and formulas and explaining why they work.

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