Math Teachers Struggling to Keep Up

A study warns that many math teachers don't know the subject and are only a chapter ahead of students.


If you're a student who is struggling in algebra class, it's possible that your teacher might be what's holding you back. A new study reveals that far too many math teachers don't know their subject, and, in some instances, might be only a chapter ahead of their students. The study by the Education Trust, a children's advocacy group in Washington, finds that 22 percent of all math classes in secondary schools are taught by teachers who lack adequate credentials, meaning they don't have a degree in math or a math teaching certificate. The problem is worse at middle schools and high schools that serve mostly low-income and minority children. Those students are about twice as likely to have math teachers who don't thoroughly know their subject, according to Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted the study.

Having a well-prepared math teacher, especially in high school, is a strong predictor of student success. Studies show that students who do well in Algebra II, for example, are five times more likely to earn a bachelor's degree. Ingersoll's study doesn't consider student achievement in states or school districts that have greater numbers of unqualified math teachers. But it suggests those students are at risk. After comparing data reported by state officials against data from a federal teacher survey, he found that 4 in 10 math classes in high-poverty schools have teachers without math credentials. He found similar results in schools with many black and Latino students. Three in 10 math classes in those schools have math teachers who hold no particular qualifications in the subject.

Ingersoll's analysis also shows that some states report teachers as "highly qualified" even though many of them say they don't have credentials in the subjects they teach. Ohio, for example, reports that 93 percent of its core subject classes in 2003 were taught by "highly qualified" teachers. But Education Department data show that only about 60 percent of those classes had such teachers. The No Child Left Behind law was supposed to ensure that every classroom teacher was qualified in his or her subject. But the law left it up to the states to define a highly qualified teacher.

Some cities and states are taking steps to correct the problem. The University of North Carolina system, for example, is trying to triple the number of math teachers it produces. In cities like Boston and Chicago, where the local colleges of education are not training enough teachers to meet the local schools' demand, officials have created alternative teacher certification programs. They follow the residency model of medical schools and allow new math teachers to enter the classroom only after spending a year with a successful teacher.