- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Math can be hard enough, but imagine the difficulty when a teacher is just one chapter ahead of the students.

It happens, and it happens more often to poor and minority students. Those children are about twice as likely to have math teachers who don’t know their subject, according to a report by the Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group.

Studies show the connection between teachers’ knowledge and student achievement is particularly strong in math.

“Individual teachers matter a tremendous amount in how much students learn,” said Ross Wiener, who oversees policy issues at the organization.

The report looked at teachers who have neither an academic major nor certification in the subjects they teach.

Among the findings, which were based on Education Department data:

• In high-poverty schools, two in five math classes have teachers without a college major or certification in math.

• In schools with a greater share of black and Hispanic children, nearly one in three math classes is taught by such a teacher.

Math is important because it is considered a “gateway” course, one that leads to greater success in college and the workplace. Students who finish Algebra II in high school are more likely to get bachelor’s degrees. And people with bachelor’s degrees earn substantially more than those with high school diplomas.

The teaching problem is most acute in the middle grades, five to eight, the report said. That’s a crucial time for math, according to Ruth Neild, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

“This is a time when kids are making a really important transition from arithmetic to mathematics,” she said. “It takes careful instruction, and if kids can’t get that, and really get it, they’re not going to succeed in math in high school.”

Yet it can be tougher to find qualified teachers for middle schools, especially in low-income areas, said Miss Neild, who studied the problem in Philadelphia public schools. She did not work on the Education Trust report.

Teachers should not be blamed for out-of-field teaching, the report said. It can happen anywhere there is a teacher shortage in a particular discipline. It can also happen where there is no shortage but where school administrators have planned poorly.

Congress tried to fix the problem in the sweeping 2002 No Child Left Behind Law. The law insisted that all teachers in core academic subjects be “highly qualified” by 2006.

But the most well-known aspect of No Child Left Behind is its requirement for annual state tests in reading and math, and the penalties it imposes on schools that fail to make progress.

The teacher requirement is less well-known, and also less onerous. States were allowed to come up with their own definitions of “highly qualified.” As a result, most teachers in the U.S. today are deemed highly qualified.



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