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Press Release 07-185
U.S. Middle School Math Teachers Are Ill-prepared Among International Counterparts

Study of future math teachers in the U.S. and five other countries offers new perspective on students' lower achievement in seventh- and eighth-grade math

Math teacher at desk

The quality of teacher preparation and math curriculum are factors in student performance.
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December 11, 2007

A new study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that middle school mathematics teachers in the United States are not as well prepared to teach this challenging subject as are many of their counterparts in five other countries. The findings of this study, Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century (MT21), conducted by Michigan State University (MSU), were presented today at a news conference at the National Press Club.

"Our future teachers are getting weak training mathematically and are just not prepared to teach the demanding mathematics curriculum we need for middle schools if we hope to compete internationally in the future," said William Schmidt, MSU distinguished professor, who directed the study.

This inadequate teacher preparation joins deficiencies in mathematics curriculum as reasons contributing to lower scores for American middle-schoolers.

MT21 studied how well a sample of universities and teacher-training institutions prepare middle school mathematics teachers in the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Bulgaria and Mexico. Specifically, 2,627 future teachers were surveyed about their preparation, knowledge and beliefs in this subject area.

"The MT21 study extends the international perspective from students to teachers, and provides new approaches for conducting such a study," said Wanda Ward, deputy assistant director for NSF's education and human resources directorate. "It also offers valuable comparisons about the outcomes of teacher education programs across the participating nations."

The length of time needed to complete teacher preparation requirements varied among the countries studied. While some of the requirements could be completed within four years, others involved five to seven years of training.

"The real issue is the courses they take and the experiences they have while in their programs," Schmidt said. "Basically, what we have found is that it's not just the amount of formal mathematics training they get. It also involves training in the practical aspects of teaching middle school math and of teaching in general."

In comparison to other countries in the study, U.S. future teachers ranked from the middle to the bottom on MT21 measures of mathematics knowledge.

"What's most disturbing is that one of the areas in which U.S. future teachers tend to do the worst is algebra, and algebra is the heart of middle school math," Schmidt said. "When future teachers in the study were asked about opportunities to learn about the practical aspects of teaching mathematics, again, we rank mediocre at best."

The MT21 findings support previous international research, including the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), also conducted by MSU, which showed low U.S. achievement in mathematics compared to other countries at seventh and eighth grades. Another finding from TIMSS indicated that one of the major factors related to this low performance was a U.S. middle school curriculum that was unfocused, lacking coherence and not particularly demanding or rigorous.

"We must address this," Schmidt said. "We can make our mathematics curriculum more demanding, instead of a mile wide and an inch deep, but we also need teachers that are well prepared to teach it to all children."

Other MT21 findings include the following:

  • Future U.S. middle school teachers' mathematics knowledge was generally weaker than that of future teachers in South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and in some areas, Bulgaria. Taiwanese and South Korean future teachers were the top performers in all five areas of mathematics knowledge.
  • The best subject area for future teachers in the U.S. was statistics knowledge, where they performed near the international average.
  • Taiwanese and South Korean future teachers typically covered about 80 percent or more of advanced mathematics topics in their training, while those in Mexico and the U.S. covered less than 50 percent.
  • In the practical aspect of teaching, the extent of coverage for U.S. future teachers was also substantially less than that provided by Taiwan and South Korea.
  • Future U.S. middle school mathematics teachers in the study are trained in three kinds of programs: secondary programs, elementary programs and those that directly prepare middle school teachers.

Those that prepare as secondary teachers have a stronger mathematics preparation. Those that prepare as elementary teachers have stronger teaching skill preparation. Those that prepare as middle school teachers seem to have the worst of both these programs.

The full MT21 report is available at http://usteds.msu.edu/related_research.asp

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Maria C. Zacharias, NSF, (703) 292-8070, mzachari@nsf.gov
Tom Oswald, Michigan State University, (517) 432-0920, Oswald@ur.msu.edu

Program Contacts
Janice M. Earle, NSF, (703) 292-5097, jearle@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
William Schmidt, Michigan State University Education Policy Center, (517) 353-4884, bschmidt@msu.edu
Maria Tatto, Michigan State University, (517) 353-6418, mttatto@msu.edu

Related Websites
MT21 report resources: http://usteds.msu.edu/related_research.asp

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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