R U 4 teachers knowing Arithmetic?


By Jerome Dancis


Do we countenance surgeons practicing for a few years and then ease out those with an excess of dead patients or do we set high or at least reasonable, standards for licensing surgeons?    Pres. Obama and Sec Duncan repeatedly call for easing out ineffective teachers.  I am unaware of either even hinting at raising licensing standards.


Now is the time to place the issue of teachers being able to add fractions on the table for discussion.


Obama’s stimulus program includes $100 Billion for education.  About $95 Billion is for three main pieces:  scholarships, Math-Sci partnerships and money for states for education.  Much of this money is being used to reduce disruptions to current school district programs due to budget cuts. 

There is about  $5 billion for improvement, called RACE TO THE TOP (RTTT).


The public letter below calls for allocating some RTTT money to states to use in the raising of licensing standards to include requiring that Grade 1-8 teachers AND their math supervisors be fluent in Arithmetic.   This public letter (then with 16 signatures) was one of the 3000 comments on criteria for awarding RITT money submitted to the U.S. Dept. of Education.


There is easily a forum a week on improving education in Washington, usually sponsored by an education think tank.  It is rare that teachers’ content knowledge is mentioned, and when mentioned, it occurs in a single sentence, with no follow up or comment  -- the exceptions are press releases of the National Council on Teacher Quality and questions from the audience by me, like the one that prompted the following remark:


As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said (May 11 at Brookings Institution):

You all well know that it is hard to teach what you don't know. When we get to 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, we see a lot of students start to lose interests in math and science, and guess why, because their teachers don't know math and science so it is hard to really instill passion and a love for learning if you are struggling with the content yourself. So I agree we can use a ton of these resources to send teachers back to schools and universities to get the endorsement to get the content and knowledge they need and the knowledge they need to be able to teach.


 [For teachers to] know the content is a step in the right direction. A great great use of one-time money is to give teachers content knowledge they need that will stay with them forever. And we will have a huge opportunity to do that in the next couple of years.


Yes, he said “great” twice.   Stimulus package money, including the $5 Billion education Race to the Top (RTTT) money is one-time money.

What Sec. Duncan did NOT say was that any money is specifically allocated for giving teachers content knowledge.  States will be submitting proposals for RTTT money.   I expect that it will be the rare state proposal which will list giving teachers content knowledge.  I expect proposals for professional development (PD) in pedagogy for teachers.


My comment on May 11 at Brookings Institution also included an abbreviation of this:


Problem.  Certified teachers with insufficient knowledge of course content, that is Math teachers who do not know the Math. Many states have no specific certification for middle school teachers; there is a general K-8 certification to teach all of math, English, science and social studies.  With low Math standards for teachers, states can’t help setting low Math standards for students.


NCLB to the attempted rescue. Teachers must be "highly qualified".


Loophole.  States get to set the standards as low as they please for "highly qualified".

Wishful thinking.  When NCLB is reauthorized, it will require states to raise standards for the "highly qualified" endorsement to include that Grade 1-8 teachers and their math supervisors be fluent in Arithmetic.   Not on the table currently.


Relatedly:  Maryland and a dozen other states use the absurdly low-level Praxis II Middle School Math Content Exam as a criteria for their designating "highly qualified" Middle School Math Teachers.  But, middle school Math teachers get to use calculators on this exam, so no need for "highly qualified" Middle School Math Teachers to be fluent or even knowledgeable in Arithmetic. 


Massachusetts:   Aspiring elementary school [Grades 1-5] teachers will now need to pass a math-specific test to earn their teaching license, making.  Massachusetts is the first  (or second) state in the country to do this.  The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted this new regulation on May 19, 2009.  The cut score for passing was 60%.  More than a quarter (27%) of the aspiring teachers, who took the exam in March, passed.


Massachusetts new Math content standards for its elementary school teachers (Grades 1-5); are higher than Maryland’s (and many states’) Math content standards for its endorsement as a “highly qualified” middle school Math teacher.


These math standards are discussed in:  “Making the grade: New math standards for teachers --  Standards in teacher training are key in ensuring an elementary school teacher's knowledge of mathematics." on Boston.com, Sep 11, 2009    To read this, click on the link below or cut and paste it into a Web browser:



The author of this article, Richard Bisk Chair Mathematics Department at Worcester State College, teaches a Professional Development Math Content Course.  He notes:  “In my number and operations course for teachers, I use Singapore Math books from grades 3, 4, 5, and 6.

         At the beginning of the course, many teachers can’t do many of the problems.

At the end of the course, many wish they were using these texts in their classrooms.”  [Singapore Primary Math Textbooks -- An Overview” on Bisk’s website, “Singapore Math Implementation Project  wwwfac.worcester.edu/smip]


Bisk also wrote: Most teachers will say up front that they want the implementation knowledge and not the math as they don't realize how their limited math background affects their ability to teach well. I've been fairly successful in convincing them that the math needs to come first.


Our children deserve teachers, who know Arithmetic.