Teacher Preparation and the Roles of Master Teachers in the United States
In China, teachers advance along a clear professional hierarchy over the course of their careers. No such clear hierarchy exists in the United States. Presenters at the workshop commented that U.S. teachers’ careers should instead be viewed as following “trajectories,” with different routes possible at different stages of a career. Some of these routes lead toward positions that could be grouped under the heading of “master teacher,” but these roles are extremely varied.
TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION
The one part of teachers’ careers that does follow an established hierarchy, at least within each state or district, is initial certification, observed Yeping Li of Texas A&M University. Before certification, a teacher can be an assistant or student teacher. Assistant or temporary teachers also can be hired by schools to assist in classroom instruction. In addition, many districts have emergency certification processes that enable them to hire teachers who have not yet met the full certification requirements, e.g., Alternative Route to Teaching Certification.
Li used the state of Texas as an example of the certification process, while noting that the process varies in other locations. To obtain a teacher’s certificate in Texas, a prospective teacher must complete a bachelor’s degree in an academic major, complete a teacher training program, and pass the
appropriate teacher certification tests. The first two requirements may be combined in the same program.
Colleges of education in Texas generally do not offer bachelor’s degrees that include teacher training programs, but the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture, where Li works, does offer an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree that is acceptable for certification.
ADVANCED CERTIFICATION AND AWARDS
One way in which U.S. teachers gain enhanced recognition and responsibilities is through advanced certification. For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is a nongovernmental, nonprofit, and independent certification organization, has certified more than 70,000 teachers since the program began in 1987. In many states and districts, board certification triggers additional pay. Teachers also can earn greater pay and higher professional standing through graduate education and certification programs offered by educational institutions and other organizations.
In addition, teachers in the United States can earn a variety of honors and awards offered by government at various levels, colleges and universities, foundations, and private-sector organizations. For example, several presenters at the workshop had received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching. These kinds of honors and awards “help promote school education in this country,” mentioned Li.
The criteria for these awards are not always clear or consistent, Li observed. Also, the achievements of the teachers who are honored do not necessarily paint a consistent picture of effective teaching.
As Jennifer Bay-Williams of the University of Louisville pointed out, many teachers remain classroom teachers for their entire careers. In general, pay rises with seniority and additional levels of education. An additional problem with both certification and awards, mentioned Bay-Williams, is that not many teachers strive for these exceptional levels of achievement. “It’s not a systematic thing where everyone is trying and only a few get it,” commented Bay-Williams. “We just have a few who are trying.” Similarly, merit-based pay systems, in which teachers are rewarded on the basis of specific output, have been “largely unsuccessful” in the United States, she pointed out. “Many teachers don’t like to be in competition, or on a career ladder, or having to put materials forth to show how good they are.”
ADVANCED PROFESSIONAL ROLES FOR TEACHERS
There has been much interest in recent years in creating roles for teachers that incorporate specialized expertise and responsibilities, commented Edward Liu of Rutgers University. These roles can be extremely varied. They include math coaches and consultants, technology coordinators, mentor teachers, mentoring and induction coordinators, peer reviewers, special education inclusion coordinators, department chairs, grade-level team leaders, and house leaders.
The responsibilities assumed by these individuals are as varied as their titles. They may serve as informal resources to other teachers, open their classrooms to outside visitors, work with student teachers, interact with administrators, organize and deliver professional development, or oversee novice teachers.
The criteria that must be met to move into one of these roles are also varied. Possible factors are years of experience, leadership skills, extra credentials, and honors or awards. Typically, mathematics teachers in the United States start with their basic certificate and other credentials and then add other certifications, which may make them eligible to fill one of these roles. For example, seven states offer an advanced mathematics specialist certification, commented Bay-Williams. In contrast, she added, almost every state has roles identified specifically as reading specialists.
Despite their proliferation, many of these roles continue to be marked by challenges and limitations, Liu observed. Most teacher leadership roles are local and have not been formalized across jurisdictions. If extra pay is associated with these positions, the extra funding is often unstable and depends on the district or state budget. The job responsibilities and role descriptions are often unclear and vary from district to district and school to school, resulting in a lack of consistency. The criteria for selecting teacher leaders are often unclear, and among teachers there is some distrust about the criteria used for selection and the role of principals or other leaders in making decisions.
Finally, these roles sometimes clash with the existing professional norms of autonomy, seniority, and egalitarianism. This is especially true for roles involving educational reform or instructional leadership. “Once the role involves going into the classroom, observing other teachers, and offering critiques, teachers start worrying about their privacy,” mentioned Liu. “The teachers who fill these positions can have difficulty trying to get the author-
ity to implement their jobs, so they have to negotiate with other teachers to do their jobs effectively.”
Another complication pointed out by several workshop participants is that master teachers may not be available where they are most needed. Some districts have sought to provide financial incentives for master teachers to work in high-need schools, but extra pay may not be enough to entice these teachers to change districts, especially since many mathematics and science teachers could receive higher salaries by working in the private sector. Retirement systems also can act as a barrier to movement, since teachers may lose part of their retirement benefits or seniority privileges if they move from one state or district to another.
Finally, becoming a master teacher often means that a teacher is no longer teaching in the classroom. “We rarely have a position that straddles teaching students and teaching teachers,” commented Bay-Williams. “We take our best teachers and pull them out to have them help teachers, but then they are no longer teaching themselves, so they are no longer there as models in the classroom.”
Mari Muri of Wesleyan University offered a different perspective on this issue. As a classroom teacher, she used to have influence on 24 students each year. “But if you can affect teachers who each have 24 students, it’s a multiplier effect. I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
RECEIVING AND PROVIDING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
One of the major responsibilities of master teachers is to provide teachers with professional development, and several presenters at the workshop spoke about the kinds of professional development that teachers need to become master teachers and that master teachers in turn should provide to other teachers. An effective teacher, commented Cindy Bryant, who was a mathematics teacher in Missouri for 25 years, not only knows mathematical content but also knows “the strategies to use, when to use them, and which to use with particular students.” Effective teachers “focus on instructional strategies, have a repertoire of strategies to use, know how to manage their classrooms well, and [consider] what their students need to know.”
In the opinion of Joann Barnett, a middle school mathematics teacher in Missouri, the professional development she received early in her career was not as useful as it could have been since she didn’t know how to connect the activity to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “Twenty-five years
ago, the professional development provided to mathematics teachers in the United States was not very effective.”
Encouraged by several positive professional development experiences, Barnett began searching for similar experiences, and soon she began offering professional development to the other teachers in her school. “School is not just a place for students to learn,” mentioned Barnett. “Teachers learn, too, while they are at school. If our students see us excited about learning and if they see that we have a passion about teaching, our students are going to be excited about what they are learning.”
Teachers need to know how to be effective with students at all levels of skill and academic achievement. “That’s where instructional strategies really make a difference,” commented Bryant. “Many times a student will not respond to one strategy, but if I try something else it might really grab that student.” Teachers need to be able to ask questions appropriate to a situation, which requires profound content knowledge. They need to learn how to assess student learning and use that information to adjust instruction. They need to be able to use technology both for instruction and for data sharing and distribution.
Heather Callahan of the University of California, Los Angeles, also discussed the skills that master teachers need and how they can inculcate those skills in other teachers. Master teachers need to be able to develop teacher understanding of both mathematical content and pedagogy. In the United States, people tend to view mathematics as largely computational and fact driven. Therefore, “the first task of a master teacher is to help the teachers they are working with develop a balanced view of mathematics as a problem-solving and proving activity in which we use facts and computational techniques.” Many teachers in the United States do not have enough background in mathematics to explain some of the concepts they teach, “which is perfectly understandable given our cultural understanding of the field of mathematics,” mentioned Callahan. Master teachers need to help teachers develop a broad view of the mathematics they teach. “Teachers need to understand the big ideas of the content.”
Master teachers also need to help teacher learners develop their pedagogical content knowledge, commented Callahan. Teachers should be able to employ numeric, geometric, and algebraic representations for students. They should employ a concrete-to-abstract pedagogy and inquiry-based activities. They should draw connections within the curriculum and be able to use modern technologies. They need to help teachers learn how to sequence tasks effectively and create and analyze assessments. Master
teachers also need the ability to communicate their understandings effectively to other teachers. Two areas are especially important in this regard, according to Callahan. One is to facilitate teacher understanding through lesson modeling and analysis. The other is to engage teachers in examining student thinking.
Master teachers should help write instructional guides and curriculum charts, aid in assessment and interpretation of results, and provide teachers with opportunities to practice and to reflect on their teaching. As Callahan said, “A master teacher needs to be an effective communicator, listener, and facilitator of discussion among adults.”
Callahan also said, “I don’t enjoy it when someone stands in front of me and tells me what the theorem is.” It is especially effective for teachers to learn new mathematics using the same methods they are being encouraged to use in their classrooms.
Master teachers acquire their expertise in many ways, observed Muri. Mathematics leadership institutes, such as those provided by the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, can provide valuable experiences. Universities are becoming more sensitive to the need of prospective and practicing elementary school teachers for courses not in calculus but in subjects that help them become better at the mathematics that they are teaching. Publishers and technology providers can be excellent providers of professional development. Muri mentioned the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as an example of an organization that offers web-based seminars and courses as well as other web-based resources. “You’re not going to go away [from any one experience] being a master teacher or mathematics specialist,” she said. “But you sometimes gain the awareness, and that’s the first spark. You become motivated to seek additional information.”
There are commonalities in effective professional development in China and the United States, highlighted Susan Nickerson of San Diego State University. Good professional development combines mathematical content with information on effective instructional strategies. It thrives on a passion for mathematics and asks for persistent endeavor. It relies on support from others with high academic standards, a vision of effective teaching, access to supplementary materials, and reflection on practice.
Chinese teachers have an opportunity to go much deeper in their professional development discussions, commented Nickerson, partly because
they have more time for such activities and partly because the curriculum and policy environment in China tend to be more stable. Also, professional development tends to be much more individualistic in the United States, whereas in China it takes advantage of communities of practice.
Xue Han of the University of New Mexico agreed that professional development in China is systematic and organized, whereas in the United States it is more fragmented. “Based on my experience in the United States, many elementary school teachers do not have any professional development related to mathematics,” she mentioned. In China, the professional development curriculum is closely tied to the mathematics curriculum and to the textbooks used in the class, while in the United States, professional development is often disconnected with what is taught in the classroom. “We offer a lot of snapshot workshops to teachers, or professional development is project-based. When the money is gone, the professional development is over. So there is no consistency across professional development experiences offered to teachers.”
Despite the problems with professional development in the United States, differentiated roles, career ladders, induction programs, and more rigorous evaluation of teachers are “at the top of the federal, state, and local policy agendas,” commented Liu. “Many different stakeholders are very interested in these issues, and there is lots of activity throughout the country.”
Becoming a Certified Master Mathematics Teacher in Texas
Yeping Li described a process in the state of Texas that leads to certification as a Master Mathematics Teacher (MMT). To obtain the MMT certificate, a teacher must have at least 3 years of teaching experience, complete an approved MMT preparation program, and pass the MMT certification exam (which was first administered in June 2003). The responsibilities of an MMT involve teaching mathematics and mentoring other teachers, including working with other mathematics teachers or with content area teachers, depending on the needs of a particular school. MMTs who are designated by their districts to teach and mentor in high-need schools receive a year-end stipend from the state.
Summary of Key Differences in the Mathematics Teaching Profession in China and the United States as Identified by Workshop Speakers
Math teachers are usually specialists even at the elementary level.
Teaching is a public practice with norms and structures that promote collaboration.
The teaching profession has a clear career hierarchy with distinct, formal ranks from novice (second rank) to master teacher.
Master teachers continue to teach and perform their additional responsibilities, using their classrooms as a base. Work occurs in the communal context of the school.
Professional development is embedded in the daily life of the school.
A national curriculum allows teachers more time for continuous improvement in lesson preparation.
K–12 teachers are actively involved in generating knowledge on how to improve teaching.
Math teachers are usually generalists at the elementary level and specialists at the secondary level.
Teaching is largely a private practice with norms and structures that favor autonomy.
The teaching profession does not have a clear hierarchy, though there is some movement toward creating differentiated roles for teachers.
Master teachers often have to move outside of the classroom to a new position, to take on additional responsibilities.
Professional development often occurs outside the daily life of the school.
Without a national curriculum, teachers often spend a lot of time aligning standards, curriculum, testing, and so on, rather than developing and reflecting on lessons.
There is a greater separation between research on improving teaching and actual practice.