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training teachers
Marc Tucker

Why don’t American students really get math? Because their elementary school teachers don’t either, says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a policy institute that studies what America can learn from the world’s best-performing education systems.

Tucker describes a vicious cycle.

“We are mainly recruiting teacher candidates from the bottom half of the kids who go to college,” said Tucker. “These kids come out of high school with a very shaky command of high school math and eventually become teachers who can show their students the steps for doing a long division problem, but can’t tell them why it works. So when their students get to high school, they can’t really do algebra either because they don’t understand how the arithmetic works.”

Related: Elementary school teachers struggle with Common Core math standards

In a new report released by NCEE, researcher Ben Jensen looks at what America can learn from how teacher-training institutions in top performing countries prepare elementary school teachers for the classroom. He examined how four systems – Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong – arm teachers with a rich understanding of the subject areas they will teach and how their future students will learn that content. Jensen found that these countries provide four lessons for the U.S.:

  1. Raise selectivity standards for future educators. The report notes that this looks differently across the four systems. While Finland maintains very high admissions standards for entry to teacher preparation programs, Japan instead has the checkpoint at the end of training programs, requiring teachers to sit for a tough licensure exam.
  2. Require that elementary school teachers specialize in content areas. Most primary school teachers in the U.S. teach all subjects. In many top countries, teacher candidates specialize in either math and science or language and social studies.
  3. Focus on content knowledge. Trainee teachers in these countries study the content they will actually be teaching, say fourth grade fractions, not advanced college math. The idea is to give them a deep understanding not just of the content but also how students learn it.
  4. Create structured professional learning communities. Many top countries embrace career ladders where master teachers formally train teachers in their first few years in the classroom.
training teachers
Chinese minority students spent time last summer at this school in Southern China’s Yunnan province learning their native language. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

“There’s a generalist approach to primary education that says subject expertise isn’t really important, that the general level of content knowledge that most adults have is enough to prepare them to be elementary school teachers, but no high achieving country would agree,” said Jensen.

Related: Why don’t more teachers like the edTPA?

But Jensen says that the case of Finland shows that schools don’t need to recruit astrophysicists to teach primary mathematics, just educators steeped in the curriculum they’re going to be putting in front of their students.

“There’s a generalist approach to primary education that says subject expertise isn’t really important, that the general level of content knowledge that most adults have is enough to prepare them to be elementary school teachers, but no high achieving country would agree.”

“In your first week you are handed the elementary school curriculum and you are told that for the next few years you are going to be taught not only the content of that but a deep conceptual understanding of the skills underlying that curriculum. And here’s the most important thing: You will be taught all the questions students are likely to have, the difficulties they are likely to encounter in learning that curriculum,” said Jenson. “People are not required to have degrees in advanced calculus, not required to have PhDs, they are required to have a very deep, conceptual understanding of what is taught in elementary schools.

The lessons may be more critical now, as most states continue to hold students to the more rigorous standards outlined by the Common Core. As reported by The Hechinger Report last month, “depth of understanding was hailed by its architects as a cornerstone of the Common Core, a set of educational guidelines for what students need to know in each grade in English and math that have been adopted in 43 states and the District of Columbia. The problem is that most elementary school teachers did not learn math that way, and many now struggle to teach to the new standards.”

Sharon Robinson – president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, an interest group representing the nation’s 800 schools of education – thinks the report makes some important points, particularly around selectivity.

“GPA is not the issue,” said Robinson. “The average GPA for candidates is over 3.0, that’s for their work in college, and that leads us to ask, ‘what are we missing here?’ Is the college work not adequately rigorous or focused in a way that leads to candidates who will be able to learn to teach? We are also looking at selection at the hiring end. We are getting more folks interested in using measures that actually document candidates capacity to teach.”

Robinson, however, faults the report for a “blaming and shaming” tone that makes it harder to “overcome the defensiveness that is provoked by these conversations.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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