Blog Series

Where Are the Math Teachers?

by John Woodward on Nov 16, 2017

  • Math
  • Professional Development
  • Special Education
  • STEM

This blog and the next summarize a recent presentation I gave at a National Science Foundation conference about STEM and learning disabilities. What I discuss here is the challenge of finding a sufficient number of qualified teachers who are responsible for a contemporary, rigorous mathematics education that struggling and special education secondary students desperately need in our schools today. The next blog will present what I believe are three practical solutions to this challenge for the short term.

I base the following views on a career in educational research, the development of curriculum and professional development services for struggling students in mathematics, as well as many years as dean of a school of education. The latter perspective is especially pertinent, since I could not help but notice a significant decline in the number of math candidates in our teacher preparation program beginning in 2000. At first, the decline was gradual, but it accelerated with the Great Recession. It is only after recently published, historical data about trends in teacher education that the reasons for the decline in qualified secondary math teachers became clear to me.

The Heart of the Problem

At the heart of today’s challenge is finding a sufficient number of new teachers who have three distinct qualifications:

  1. A sufficient content knowledge of mathematics
  2. A reasonable level of teaching or “pedagogical” knowledge of the subject, and
  3. A capacity to differentiate instruction for struggling students

Finding all of these qualifications in one individual is rare, and the data confirm this.

Not only have the number of students enrolling in traditional teacher preparation programs dropped by 35 percent since the recession1, but recruitment of special education and mathematics education teachers remained consistently low. In fact, special education and STEM graduates from traditional teacher education programs have been relatively flat for more than two decades. For example, there are roughly half the number of special education teachers who graduate each year than elementary teachers, and there are even fewer STEM teachers2.

I emphasize traditional programs because there is an alarming shift in recent years from traditional to what are called “alternative teacher preparation routes,” which allow prospective math and special education teachers to enter the profession faster, often with much less formal preparation. These programs tend to be less costly, and they allow a candidate to stay in their current career longer before moving into the teaching workforce. Currently, there are more than two times the number of special educators in alternative programs than traditional programs, and more than three times as many math educators3. Unfortunately, retention data indicate special educators who graduate from alternative programs are twice as likely as those from traditional programs to leave the profession within three years. Skeptics tend to call this, “easy in, easy out.

Underlying Factors

What factors are underlying these trends? Let’s start with math educators. Ultimately, they are in the best position to serve secondary students because of their content knowledge and the likelihood they have received some pedagogical training in their teacher preparation program. As mentioned above, their participation in teacher education has been relatively low for decades, and this is important because as graduation standards have increased in time, the demand for these teachers at the high school level alone has risen significantly. Schools simply need more high school algebra and geometry teachers. One consequence of this is a shortage in this area of the workforce means qualified math teachers are much less likely to serve Tier 2 or Tier 3 special education students.

A further reason for the shortage is college students with quantitative skills are increasingly being drawn into other jobs in our tech-oriented economy. And with the increased cost of college education, return on investment is likely to be another factor affecting how young adults with quantitative skills make career choices. Certainly, there are many other reasons for the scarcity of math teachers today, and the sustained national critiques of public education we have witnessed in the last decade have not helped.

Special Education

Special education is a different matter. Job stress, excessive paperwork, and the particular emotional demands put on special educators yield low entrance into the profession and above average attrition rates. Dissatisfaction with the workplace environment is another high-ranking reason for attrition, something that also affects all teachers who leave public education within five to seven years after they began their careers.

The particular problem of having a sufficient number of special educators who “know the math they teach” is rooted in an array of factors. Teacher preparation programs for these candidates still have a heavy content emphasis on beginning reading. This is understandable given what we know about teaching reading today. But it also displaces any kind of balanced emphasis on math instruction. Consequently, candidates who already have a relatively low content knowledge of math are likely to get only one course on the subject, if that. Special educators also may end up working in jobs where there is little or no likelihood they will even teach mathematics. Instead, their daily focus may be on teaching reading, IEP management, and/or outreach to parents. This “role diffusion” undermines the development of qualified math special educators.

For all of these reasons—and more—it should be no surprise struggling and special education secondary students have far less than optimal math instruction in middle and high school. How the challenge of higher-quality math instruction for these students can be addressed systematically will be the subject of the next blog. Stay tuned.

Works Sited

1Sutcher L., Darling-Hammond L., Carver-Thomas D. (2016). A coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
2Dee, T., & Goldhaber, D. (2017). Understanding and addressing teacher shortages in the United States. Washington, DC: The Hamilton Project.
3U.S. Department of Education Office of Post Secondary Education. (2016). Preparing and credentialing the nation’s teachers. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Helping Teachers Build Mathematics Connections and Problem-Solving Skills for Every Student: Dr. John Woodward's NUMBERS professional development complements any math curriculum and provides teachers in grades K–8 with the skills to maximize instruction.


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