May 11, 2002

Math Teachers Who Almost Took Math


In January a young woman came to my office in search of an appropriate math course to qualify her for certification as a mathematics teacher. She was armed with a New York State Education Department form that indicated she was just one course short of meeting the math teacher requirements. Yet she had only one mathematics course pre-calculus on her college transcript. How could this be? The answer is that New York State credits courses for math certification that are really not math courses. I have seen accounting, finance, economics and engineering courses credited toward the math requirement.

All courses with numbers are not equal, and training in accounting or economics does not guarantee knowledge of math.

Mathematics is one of the most important subjects in the curriculum, a necessary foundation for many other areas of study, and we are allowing people who may know precious little about it to teach it. Some of them may become fine teachers, but they may not know much more about specific mathematics topics than what is in the textbook they are using.

Because college graduates who majored in mathematics can easily get jobs that pay more than teaching does, there is a national shortage of qualified math teachers. In many states, schools are putting teachers in math classes who have little background in math, but few other states have a math teacher shortage as severe as New York's. For students, this can mean having a teacher who cannot properly present or explain crucial concepts and cannot enrich the course in a way that motivates them to develop a liking (or a love) for math.

In 1998 I initiated an Austrian visiting teacher program to address the shortage of qualified math teachers in New York City. The Austrians were mathematically prepared but only stayed one or two years. It wasn't a long-term solution.

The New York State Board of Regents is now considering offering a math-immersion program for secondary school math certification as an alternative to the usual requirements. I would suggest that this program offer college graduates with good academic records in quantitative fields of study (like engineering or statistics, for example) a special sequence of courses in the foundations of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, combinatorics, probability and statistics. Once in the classroom, these teachers should have mentoring by experienced math teachers.

Until state officials see the need to increase teacher salaries to levels that attract more college graduates to secondary school teaching, we will continue to have a shortage of teachers who are well trained in mathematics. Therefore, we can only hope that carefully designed emergency solutions like New York's planned alternative certification courses will go at least some of the way to giving our children the mathematics instruction they will need.

Alfred S. Posamentier is dean of the School of Education and professor of mathematics education at the City College of the City University of New York.

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