News for Eastern 1 Region
Mari Muri, Eastern 1 Regional Director
Spring 2010

To Certify or NOT to Certify

There is a movement afoot in many, if not all, states to require special certification for one branch of our NCSM membership. These members make up a large contingent of "elementary math specialists."

These teachers, for the most part, are certified to teach elementary (PreK-6, or K-6, or K-8) grades. They have been prepared in each of the major disciplines during their college work. They may have chosen to do additional work in mathematics or some other subject, but do not have a major in the subject. Yet, they have gravitated toward a special interest and understanding of elementary mathematics. Because of this special interest, they have joined organizations such as NCSM to further their study of math and to interact with "math specialists" from around the country. Their thirst for math has been, and continues to be, propelled further through ongoing professional development. Currently, the following states have a designation for "elementary math specialists": Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.

By my residence and work in the state of Connecticut, I can speak most knowledgably about what is taking place in Connecticut. I invite fellow NCSM members to join this conversation.

The terms being used by the Connecticut State Department of Education for teachers needing additional certification include: "teacher leader," "team leader," "content coach," "curriculum specialist," and "math specialist." These are certified elementary teachers, often with a master's degree, who have taken on duties such as: school-level mathematics curriculum coordination; school-level coaching of teachers in mathematics; assisting and supporting teachers; and/or modeling instruction in mathematics. In the state of Connecticut, these leaders, coaches, and specialists would be required to earn a Teacher Leader certificate through an additional 12 college credits and field experience. The content areas of college work would include: instructional leadership (coaching, adult learning, etc.); developing measurable school goals; school culture; assessing and overcoming barriers to change; collaboration; best practices in instruction and student assessment; using assessment data to monitor student progress to meet students' diverse learning needs; and developing, monitoring, implementing, and evaluating standards-based curricular programs.

Current Connecticut thinking does not include "grandfathering" in teachers who have already successfully engaged in these kinds of leadership duties and responsibilities. Nor is monetary compensation for course work taken into consideration - all Teacher Leader certification would be at the teachers' own expense with no provision for a pay increase by the district. Currently, most teacher leaders, and not just in Connecticut, remain at the teacher pay scale and are assigned a few additional days per year at a per diem rate.

Here is a quote from Johnny Lott during his tenure as President (2002-2004) of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM):

"Traditionally, non-specialists at the elementary school level have taught the fundamental ideas that form the foundation of children's mathematics education. NCTM believes that elementary school teachers must reach beyond fundamental mathematics to teach with conceptual understanding. Are elementary school teachers qualified to teach mathematics with understanding? What do elementary school teachers need to become qualified mathematics specialists?"

Since Lott's tenure, NCTM has published this research clip

What Do We Know about the Use of Mathematics Specialists and Coaches in Schools?

Many schools and districts are using mathematics specialists and coaches to improve instruction and student achievement; yet, there is a lack of abundant research on their effectiveness. Preliminary results from the few existing studies suggest:

  • There is too little research on mathematics specialists to indicate their effectiveness.
  • Preliminary research on mathematics coaches has indicated the potential for improving instructional practice.
  • The design of the mathematics coaching program is an important factor.
  • Researching the impact of specialists and coachers is difficult because these professionals are often part of a larger professional development program. Isolating the impact of just this component is difficult.

Overall, more research is definitely needed before confident statements can be made about the effectiveness of mathematics coaches and specialists.

In addition, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM), and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), collaborated and wrote a joint position statement in response to the release of Elementary Mathematics Specialists: A Reference for Teacher Credentialing and Degree Programs (AMTE, 2010). You can read the joint position statement in it's entirety.

So, we have been made aware of the need and importance of elementary math specialists. Certainly any relevant coursework will also help to "create" math specialists. There is no question that anyone who rises to the level of "math leader" needs to meet certain criteria outlined in the position statement referred to above: understanding of content and elementary context, expertise in effective instruction and assessment practices, skills in working with adult learners, and leadership skills to influence improved teaching and learning. But, does it take a certificate or degree to acquire this knowledge or these skills?

There's a website at McDaniel College that describes several school district models for math specialists, coaches and resource teachers. It is well worth viewing.

My questions are:

  1. Do Elementary Math Specialists need a special certification in order to be a leader of math in their school or district?
  2. Could their knowledge come from attending selective and frequent professional development seminars, courses, conferences, etc.?
  3. How have we developed outstanding elementary math leaders thus far?
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