Math teachers will have to modify many of their academic strategies as a result of the higher and broader expectations of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics. In order to accomplish the new emphasis on demonstrating the curriculum’s real-world math relevance, teachers will not only be required to be extremely well-versed in the topics specific to their classes, they will also have to possess a far ranging background in the overall discipline. These new expectations will have a particularly heavy impact on two groups who have struggled in math—elementary and special education. For those responsible for bringing math into grades K-5 the task will be challenging—stimulating young minds in a highly structured course. The mission of those in special education will be even more daunting—preparing special needs students to meet these more rigorous standards.
Not an easy fit
During my career as a high school department chair, the most problematic hiring involved special education teachers who taught math. While there were many talented educators who were fluent in addressing the special learning needs of their students, there was an extremely limited supply of special education teachers who also had a sufficient background in math. Over the course of more than twenty years, dozens of individuals worked with the math staff in both team-taught and self-contained situations. Sadly, during that period of time only two of those educators had enough math knowledge to effectively teach the subject. One had a degree in math and did excellent work until she left the profession to raise her children. The other was so well-versed in the subject matter that when she was in a teamed situation she and her cooperating teacher would share the instruction. Her math skills were so strong that after she retired she tutored in the subject. Fortunately several others worked diligently to learn the material so they could be of assistance, but in the vast majority of cases the results were not positive.
A checkered past
The stories ranged from barely adequate to terrifying. In too many cases there were teachers standing in front of math classes who had little if any background in the courses. One member of the special education department taught English one year, math the next two and then on to social studies in the fourth before his contract was terminated. In the math years, more than two-thirds of his students failed the end-of-course exams. On several occasions in order to cover math classes special education teachers would be assigned schedules including one or two sections of math without regard to their qualifications. Not surprisingly, poor standardized test results were common in these classes. One teacher who had never taken a course beyond Algebra 2 in high school was assigned to work as a team teacher in that course. The students assigned to her performed miserably on the corresponding state exams.
The most vulnerable group
Successful schools subscribe to a simple philosophy—always have your best teachers working with your weakest students. Too often that is not the case for students with learning disabilities. Ask any principal which subgroup is the most likely to cause a school to fail Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind and they will say special education. This was true at my school. Though in the ten years I oversaw the math program during the NCLB testing the department always surpassed the required benchmarks for every subgroup, the special needs students were always the ones closest to failing. And there can be little question that the combination of a highly at-risk group of students being instructed by many under qualified teachers led to these shortcomings.
Creating a great teaching staff for our neediest students
Simply throwing more money at education will not necessarily improve academic performance. But in the case of elementary and special education math teachers I believe a significant financial investment is necessary. There are several key fundamentals that define great teaching—a strong background in the subject, a love for the curriculum, the ability to communicate effectively and a desire to work with students. In a typical high school math staff many individuals possessing all of those qualities can be found. Unfortunately in terms of math instruction that is not always true for a school’s special education department or at the feeder elementary building. There is little question, however, that many of those successful high school math educators could be equally effective and professionally satisfied working in an elementary school setting or with learning disabled students. The key is to offer them the appropriate training and significant financial incentives to make such a move. School districts need to aggressively recruit and offer substantial rewards to those who possess the unique set of classroom skills that will enable them to work successfully in these challenging and critical circumstances. In the new math world of the CCSS our most at-risk students deserve nothing less.