••• Education •••

Better teacher prep programs, not math coaches, is the answer to low math achievement

A few weeks ago Education Week published a story entitled “Are Math Coaches the Answer to Lagging Achievement?”. The article cites a body of research indicating that “one-on-one coaching can improve…student achievement.” The caveat is that most of the research has to do with coaching reading and literacy, with a smaller number of studies on math achievement.

To the uninitiated, coaching in public schools is not one-on-one teacher to student. It is one-on-one teacher to teacher. It’s another form of teacher training, sometimes categorized under the umbrella of professional development.

There’s no question that math scores are “lagging” in virtually all states, Kansas included. In the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, only one-in-three Kansas fourth-graders performed proficient in math. That ratio shrinks to one-in-five for low-income students. Unquestionably, schools need to give attention to this unacceptable condition.

But addressing the problem with stepped-up efforts at coaching teachers begs a fundamental question: Why do so many teachers need coaching in the first place? If the proposition that a significant number of teachers need “coaching” is accurate, that begs another question: How did these teachers get through a teacher prep program in college?

The sad truth is that too many elementary teachers, frankly put, are not very good at math and therefore not good at teaching it. I witnessed this in my 20 years of elementary teaching. I especially witnessed this first-hand in my final eight years when I was wasn’t a classroom teacher.  I exclusively taught math to struggling students in grades K-5.

But don’t take my word for it.

As cited in the Education Week article, Mona Toncheff, president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, proclaimed “some K-5 teachers have literally told me, ‘I became an elementary teacher because I didn’t like math.’” In November 2019, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion from a University of Virginia psychology professor entitled “Math scares your child’s elementary school teacher — and that should frighten you”. I concur with his thesis that the anxiety level felt by classroom elementary teachers when teaching math – particularly in the middle elementary grades – inhibits learning and subsequently student performance.

However, the answer lies not in coaching, but better prepared elementary teachers coming out of college, especially in the area of math. According to the latest research from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) only 13% of 860 teacher prep programs analyzed “address the critical topics mathematicians say aspiring elementary teachers need.” That report goes on to state “(e)lementary teachers need college-level comprehension of advanced topics so that their definitions and explanations will match what students will learn later and also to help their students understand the underlying concepts rather than just memorize procedures.” To meet that end, the report concludes teacher prep programs should “provide candidates with significant and repeated exposure to essential elementary-level topics in numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, and data analysis (and probability).”

Note: that report did not specify whether any or all Kansas teacher prep programs are meeting these recommendations. Kansas information is scheduled to be released by NCTQ this fall.

Using KU’s teacher prep approach as an example, a review of their math-related requirements supports the notion that elementary teacher candidates aren’t getting enough of that math exposure. According to KU’s website, they require elementary education majors to take one semester of college algebra and two math courses designed exclusively for teachers. That simply is inadequate. As the NCTQ report states, those who want to be elementary teachers must, at a bare minimum, take classes in geometry, statistics, and data analysis. That requirement would serve both sides of the coin – it would strengthen the math abilities of those who go on to be teachers and serve as filtering out those who aren’t prepared for the challenge.

It’s naïve to believe that raising the teacher preparation bar is on the horizon. It’s much more likely it lies somewhere over the rainbow. That is why the practice of coaching has become part of the public education landscape. But regardless of the positive effects the research on coaching has shown, here is a list of drawbacks.

-> It’s expensive. Not only do coaches typically make more money than teachers because they get a premium to do their job, but how do schools justify the expenditure for “teaching teachers how to teach”?

-> Not all teachers who “need coaching” buy into the idea. I noticed this when I was still teaching. Ironically, in my experience the better teachers usually got coaching. Why? Good teachers tend to be more critical of themselves and are receptive to seeking ways to improve. Plus, it’s only natural that the coaches want to spend time with teachers who solicit their assistance. The opposite tends to be true for struggling teachers. The Education Week article also cited this, stating “getting buy-in from teachers can be tricky.”

-> In my experience the coaches were picked from among the best teachers in the district. That sounds reasonable in concept, but it denies groups of students from benefitting from having an excellent classroom teacher. Using sports as an analogy, when was the last time a team took the most talented performer off the field of play and made him or her the coach?

-> Some coaches become de facto administrators. The Education Week article also stated that “in many districts, math coaches are tapped for administrative duties or other roles.” That was true in my school, which did not have an assistant principal. The principal brought in a literacy coach, who became a coach in name only, spending most of her time on administrative duties.

Perhaps the strongest argument against embracing and continuing teacher coaching is that it takes teacher prep programs off the hook for better preparing classroom teachers. It’s time to get to the root of the problem and not focus on how to treat the symptoms.