Spring 2015

Improving the Quality of STEM Education

How Do We Improve Elementary Math Education? It Starts in High School.

How Do We Improve Elementary Math Education? It Starts in High School.

Like me, most middle and high school mathematics teachers are keenly aware of our role in preparing the next generation of STEM professionals—engineers, health care workers, biologists, chemists and statisticians. However, few of us spend much time thinking about how we prepare the most influential STEM professionals of all: elementary school teachers.

Like me, most middle and high school mathematics teachers are keenly aware of our role in preparing the next generation of STEM professionals—engineers, health care workers, biologists, chemists and statisticians. However, few of us spend much time thinking about how we prepare the most influential STEM professionals of all: elementary school teachers. I honestly can say that as a secondary math teacher, I never considered the role I played in preparing future elementary teachers. Yet these are individuals who have the potential to exert enormous leverage in our systemic efforts to improve STEM education starting at the earliest years of schooling.

Having shifted roles now from secondary math teacher to a pre-service teacher educator, the important connection between these two points in the educational continuum is both obvious and imperative to me. I now can see how secondary teachers significantly influences the future STEM pipeline by virtue of the experiences provided in their classrooms for the cadre of students who will pursue a career in elementary education.

When looking at the students in any middle or high school math class, which ones are likely to carry this mantle? The elementary teacher work force is predominantly white (81 percent) and female (87 percent) (Goldring, 2013; The World Bank, 2014). While initiatives have been in place for many years to increase the diversity of the teaching force, this data is stubbornly consistent. Among white female students, those who will eventually pursue elementary education typically have a weak relationship with mathematics and consciously or unconsciously perpetuate math anxiety and misconceptions about the subject to the next generation of mathematics learners (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez and Levine, 2010; Perry, 2011). It creates a vicious cycle in which many students who leave high school are fearful of and lacking confidence in math, and this plays a key role influencing the attitudes and experiences of young learners reproducing the same result (Brady and Bowd, 2005).

For years, we have known that improving mathematical outcomes requires changes to elementary mathematics education. Children form beliefs about what mathematics is and themselves as mathematicians very early in their school careers (Claessens and Engel, 2013; Lavy and Sand, 2015). Tragically, schooling has a long-term negative effect on students’ interest in and success with mathematics. They enter kindergarten with great confidence in their mathematical abilities (Carpenter, Fennema, Franke, Levi and Empson, 1999), but students’ enthusiasm for the subject declines the longer they are in school (Wigfield, Eccles, Mac Iver, Reuman and Midgley, 1991).

If elementary school is the concern, why focus the attention on middle and high school? Because individual teachers and particular instructional practices at these levels have the power to enhance or damage future teachers’ relationship with math, their view of the subject and their beliefs about themselves as math learners and teachers. Every year this message hits home for me when I start my work with teacher candidates who, as national data would predict, are predominantly white and female. Their first assignment is to respond to this prompt:

What is your personal history and experiences with mathematics? What do you remember best about math in elementary school and beyond? What thoughts and feelings emerge as you explore your past? Are there particular events or experiences that shaped your disposition towards mathematics? How? Which teachers come to mind? Why? What is your past and current relationship with mathematics?

Over time I have noticed a consistent pattern: about one-third of my students have had generally positive experiences with math, about one-third have had neutral or “recovered” experiences (getting that one good teacher who turned things around for them) and the rest of them have had tragically negative experiences. The words trauma, disaster, shame, scars, stigma, fear, anxiety and panic show up far too often in their personal accounts.

Having read hundreds of these essays and talked with all of my students about their experiences, I propose five small changes secondary teachers can make that will improve the relationship our future elementary teachers have with mathematics. I present each one accompanied by a representative quote from a pre-service teacher’s response to the prompt above.

1. Emphasize the value of the wrong answer.

“Throughout my math education, my belief was that as long as you got the right answer how you got it didn’t matter. Now I realize that I skipped many of the fundamentals of math because I was so concerned with getting the right answer. [In my high school classes] if students got the wrong answer, the teacher would just call on other kids until someone had the right answer. They never took the time to check in and explore what lead the students to get their answer. Looking back, I think it is really valuable to be able to have a student explain their process whether the answer is right or wrong and, in fact, if the answer is wrong I believe the class will benefit just as much from hearing the process.”

2. Ensure equity of high expectations for all students.

“I wish I could say that in high school, everything changed; however, in a heavily tracked school the parents of the advanced students demanded the best teachers, leaving us average kids with the average teachers. The classes that I found myself in did not challenge me. That is not to say that I was some secret math genius, but the problem was that term after term, year after year, I found myself in math classes where there was a consistent set of low expectations.”

 3. Don’t let anyone hide.

“Mr. M was very selective about whom to call on for the answers. He scanned the class for the students who were naturally good at math, and ignored the rest of us. The students who struggled acted in one of two ways: they were either incredibly disruptive or attempted to fake it and blend in with the rest of the class. I was a faker, so when the teacher sat the achievers with the students falling behind, my job became exceedingly easy. One quick glance at my neighbor’s paper during group work, secured my spot in the safe zone until at least the end of the period.”

4. Celebrate and foster success.

“Mr. D was my first math teacher who made math fun. I felt excited and smart when I was in his class. He celebrated when we mastered a concept, and he let us teach it to our classmates once we figured it out. I owned the math. I remember feeling so proud of myself when I was able to demonstrate my knowledge to my classmates. Finally, I had become one of those smart students.”

5. Reduce stress in the math class.

“Once I got to high school I finally had great math teachers. Mr. B was memorable to me because he made math more casual than it had ever been before.  He found a way to make it less intimidating. Looking back, the only really innovative thing he did was teach math with a smile on his face!” 

If there is to be a change in math achievement in the elementary grades, one important leverage point is the high school classroom. Future elementary teachers need to have high school mathematics experiences that leave them feeling confident and able to pass along a love of mathematical discovery to their students. My pre-service teachers offer us five guidelines that are easy to implement and hold the power to significantly improve elementary math education from the high school classroom.



Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910967107

Brady, P., & Bowd, A. (2005). Mathematics anxiety, prior experience and confidence to teach mathematics among pre‐service education students. Teachers and Teaching, 11(1), 37-46. doi: 10.1080/1354060042000337084

Carpenter, T. P., Fennema, E., Franke, M. L., Levi, L., & Empson, S. B. (1999). Children's mathematics: Cognitively guided instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing.

Claessens, A., & Engel, M. (2013). How important is where you start? Early mathematics knowledge and later school success. Teachers College Record, 115(6), 1-29.

Goldring, R., Gray, L., and Bitterman, A. (2013). Characteristics of Public and Private Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States: Results From the 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2013-314).  Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Lavy, V., & Sand, E. (2015). On The Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers’ Stereotypical Biases: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Perry, C. A. (2011). Motivation and Attitude of Preservice Elementary Teachers toward Mathematics. School Science & Mathematics, 111(1), 2-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1949-8594.2010.00054.x

The World Bank. (2014). The World Bank Annual Report 2014

Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., Mac Iver, D., Reuman, D. A., & Midgley, C. (1991). Transitions during early adolescence: Changes in children's domain-specific self-perceptions and general self-esteem across the transition to junior high school. Developmental Psychology, 27(4), 552.

Dr. Linda Griffin

Dr. Linda Griffin is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at Lewis & Clark's Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Portland, Oregon. Her career began as a mathematics teacher at the middle and high school level in Tucson, Arizona. Following her classroom experience, she worked at the University of Arizona on a series of mathematics education projects funded by the National Science Foundation. Most recently, Linda served as the director of the Mathematics Education Unit at Education Northwest in Portland, Oregon. She earned her Ed.D. from Northern Arizona University, M.A.