Q&A with Maria Teresa Tatto: A look at teacher training programs from around the world

Maria Teresa TattoHow is math teacher training in Norway different from that in Singapore? What about Botswana or Chile? A group of international researchers headed up by a team at Michigan State University set out to answer those questions in 2006. The result is a six-year, 17-country study that tries to zero in on what countries can learn from each other to improve their teacher training practice.

The Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics is the first attempt to compare international math teacher preparations on this scale. About 22,000 teachers-to-be were surveyed and tested, as well as 5,000 instructors. The Hechinger Report talked to Maria Teresa Tatto, study director and associate professor at Michigan State, to learn the main takeaways of the work.

Q: What were some of your main findings from the study?

A: There are three key findings from the study. One is that teacher education is diverse and complex. There is no such thing as a universal program to prepare primary teachers or for secondary teachers across the programs we studied. Two, while outcomes of teacher education seem to vary according to variations in program design, all countries whose future teachers scored high in our assessments of mathematics knowledge and mathematics pedagogical knowledge rely on university-based teacher education programs. Three, future teachers who seem to know more about content and how to teach it get rigorous math instruction in high school and are in university teacher-preparation programs that are highly selective and demanding.

If you look at Chapter 1 in our report, you can see the diversity in teacher education. For example, Poland has two types of programs for primary teachers. One is a program that prepares teachers to teach up to grade four. They know substantially less mathematics content than the programs that Poland has for its specialist mathematics teachers. Program design matters. If you set up high requirements in your program and provide future teachers the opportunity to learn mathematics, and mathematics pedagogy it is likely that teachers may end up with higher level of mathematics for teaching knowledge.

We are learning the same thing from the teacher preparation programs that had the highest scores in our assessments. We had Chinese Taipei and Singapore as having a really higher achieving group of future primary and secondary teachers. They do things differently. They have very high standards for entry into teacher education. Of course, if you have an oversupply of highly-qualified candidates, you can afford to be very selective. In many countries, practically everyone who wants to go into teacher education may be accepted, especially if you have a low supply or if the teaching profession is not very attractive or if it is not very well paid or if teachers are not seen as professionals. It seems like higher-qualified teachers come with more attractive work conditions, more attractive salaries and overall consideration of the teaching profession as a more professional endeavor.

You said Chinese Taipei and Singapore did the best. How did the United States fare compared to other countries?

There is another series of countries that represent the next layer of performance in the assessments we used. That group of countries includes Germany, Poland, Russia, Switzerland and the U.S. Germany and the U.S. are more similar in terms of performance than Russia and Poland. Even though U.S. primary future teachers did not score as highly in our assessments as Chinese Taipei, or as Singapore, primary future teachers showed a level of performance in our test above the international mean. What this means is that they seem to be well equipped to teach the lower levels of primary school.  These same teachers however had difficulty with things like solving abstract and multiple steps problems. This is important information for teacher education programs and especially in the U.S. where we place a lot of emphasis on basic mathematics knowledge at the expense of more advanced knowledge such as calculus. Also in the U.S., we have future teachers at both levels—primary and secondary—that score as high as some of the future teachers in higher scoring countries. There is just a lot of variation and that variation is across programs rather than within programs.

The lowest performing group across all countries including the U.S. is the group of teachers who we think of as prepared for teaching lower secondary or middle school. We do not understand the reasons for this very well but we are very concerned about this area. It may be because they are still considered part of the primary or elementary programs and are prepared as such, but, in fact, the lower secondary curriculum does require more knowledge of mathematics that they still don’t have. That’s an important question.

Saying that a country is above or below the international mean doesn’t have much meaning. So we developed something called anchor points. Anchor points are a way of thinking about what people are able to do or not able to do in our assessment. To make sense of the results of the mathematics knowledge assessment we have two anchor points, one falls below the international mean and one above to indicate two distinct levels of performance. We then developed careful descriptions of the knowledge that people have when they score below or above the anchor points to describe what they are able to do and what they are not able to do. That is more important than saying below or above the international mean and certainly more important than only showing country rankings. This gives the participant countries the opportunity to contrast their curriculum against their goals for their future teachers. This way they can see these descriptions which are in Chapter 5 of our report and say, ‘Well that’s perfect. That’s exactly what we want our future primary teachers to know and we really don’t care whether they can solve quadratic or exponential functions’ Or they may decide that indeed it would be a good idea to change their program’s curriculum to prepare teachers to achieve higher levels of mathematics knowledge.

For countries that do look at those anchor points and decide they still do want to improve their teacher preparation programs, what are some of the recommendations you have for how they might go about doing that?

Previous knowledge of mathematics is very, very important. That speaks to the importance of more rigorous selection policies before people enter into the teacher education program. However having higher levels of mathematics knowledge does not guarantee that future teachers would do well in our assessment of mathematics pedagogy knowledge. We basically found that those programs where people seem to think that mathematics is more inquiry based, is conceptually learned, they do better in our test. This is of course not a surprise because our test measured that kind of ability. We don’t emphasize in our measures rote or procedural mathematics.

We also learned that definitely countries that prepare the best teachers do rely on programs for teacher education in universities. They are not taking any shortcuts. I think this is an important finding in the current climate we have in the USA and even globally, where we’re thinking that teachers can be good teachers if you take someone good at mathematics content only and give them short training. That’s definitely not the case for the higher performance countries in our study. In the countries in our study that do a good job with their teachers, they spend a lot of time not only making sure that they have the knowledge of mathematics that they need, but they also spend a lot of time making sure that they know how to teach mathematics. My colleague from Chinese Taipei—the highest scoring country—says this all the time. You do not only need to know the mathematics but you also need to know how to teach mathematics, how to explain it to others. Nobody graduates until they can demonstrate that they know how to teach.

We have developed a method, a model, to study teacher education practice and learn from it. This is a study where teacher educators are studying their own programs and the result of their own practice. It is a collaborative model that produces useable knowledge that teacher educators can use to improve their program’s outcomes. For a study of higher education, we had very high response rates from future teachers and I attribute this and the success of the overall study to this collaborative approach to inquiry.