Mathematics Specialists and Coaches – Catalyst for Meaningful Professional Learning

PRIMEd Principal
January 2016



Elementary Mathematics Specialists & Teacher Leaders Project – McDaniel College’s Elementary Mathematics Specialists & Teacher Leaders (ems&tl) Project is supported by the Brookhill Institute of Mathematics. The ems&tl Project addresses issues related to and in support of elementary mathematics specialists (EMS)


We need elementary school mathematics specialists, elementary classroom teachers who know and understand mathematics and can effectively mentor their colleagues. Given the need for students with a mathematics and science background and interest, this project is a first step in that direction, with multiple national implications.”                       – Dr. Francis (Skip) Fennell, ems&tl Project Director


Many school systems are currently exploring ways to ensure that students receive mathematics instruction from teachers who have a deep understanding of mathematics content and pedagogy. However, some educators still see mathematics instruction as less important at the elementary grade level. Major reports, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Principles and Standards for School Mathematics; Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics; The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel; and the Mathematical Education of Teachers, have provided a rationale for mathematics specialists at the elementary level to assist teachers with their pedagogy knowledge of elementary mathematics. There is a need for math specialists based upon the lack of pre-service background and the general teaching responsibilities of elementary teachers. Together, these create a need for teachers to have on-site support in developing their content and pedagogy knowledge needed to teach elementary mathematics effectively (Fennell, 2006).

Strategies for Implementation

According to Kilpatrick, Swafford, and Findell (2001) a critical component to improving mathematics is the professional development and preparation of elementary mathematics teachers. Teaching for learning involves a significant reorientation of the acquisition of pedagogical knowledge. To be productive, teachers’ investigation of student thinking needs to be secured by their own understanding of the standards and practices of mathematics. When teachers commit to understanding student thinking, classroom practices and pedagogy change significantly and result in student achievement (Wisconsin Center for Education, 2002). The knowledge and pedagogy needed to teach mathematics is specialized. “It includes an integrated knowledge of mathematics, knowledge of the development of students’ mathematical understanding, and a repertoire of pedagogical practices that take into account the mathematics being taught and the student learning it” (Kilpatrick et al., 2001, p. 428.)


The implications of the research are that teachers need to learn these forms of knowledge to help them create and build connections. Teachers need to know and understand the curriculum with the connections between mathematical ideas and how to develop the understanding with students. Unpacking the standards and practices is critical for teachers to be able to help students develop a conceptual understanding of the content. “Teachers need not only mathematical proficiency but also the ability to use it in guided discussions, modifying problems, and making decisions about what matters to pursue in class and what to let drop” (Kilpatrick et al., 2001, p. 428). “How well teachers know mathematics is central to their capacity to use instructional materials wisely, to assess students’ progress, and to make sound judgments about presentation, emphasis and sequencing” (Ball, Hill, & Bass, 2005, p. 14). To improve instruction, teachers must have “access to high-quality materials, the support of parents, and ongoing, focused professional development”

Guest Blogger

Over the past 21 years, Jana Palmer has been an elementary teacher, math and science supervisor, and principal of an elementary STEM magnet school in Washington County, Maryland.  She has been a longstanding member of both NCSM and NCTM and has had the priveledge to present at both conferences.  She most recently completed her doctorate degree where her quantitative study focused on the content and pedagogy knowledge of teachers in relation to students’ test results.

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