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May 31, 2009

An Email to Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad on Math Teacher Hiring Criteria

Thanks much for taking the time from your busy schedule to respond to our letter below.  I am delighted to note your serious interest in the topic of how to obtain middle school teachers who are highly qualified to teach mathematics to the MMSD's students so that all might succeed.  We are all in agreement with the District's laudable goal of having all students complete algebra I/geometry or integrated algebra I/geometry by the end of 10th grade.  One essential component necessary for achieving this goal is having teachers who are highly competent to teach 6th- through 8th-grade mathematics to our students so they will be well prepared for high school-level mathematics when they arrive in high school.

The primary point on which we seem to disagree is how best to obtain such highly qualified middle school math teachers.  It is my strong belief that the MMSD will never succeed in fully staffing all of our middle schools with excellent math teachers, especially in a timely manner, if the primary mechanism for doing so is to provide additional, voluntary math ed opportunities to the District's K-8 generalists who are currently teaching mathematics in our middle schools.  The District currently has a small number of math-certified middle school teachers.  It undoubtedly has some additional K-8 generalists who already are or could readily become terrific middle school math teachers with a couple of hundred hours of additional math ed training.  However, I sincerely doubt we could ever train dozens of additional K-8 generalists to the level of content knowledge necessary to be outstanding middle school math teachers so that ALL of our middle school students could be taught mathematics by such teachers.

Part of our disagreement centers around differing views regarding the math content knowledge one needs to be a highly-qualified middle school math teacher.  As a scientist married to a mathematician, I don't believe that taking a couple of math ed courses on how to teach the content of middle school mathematics provides sufficient knowledge of mathematics to be a truly effective teacher of the subject.  Our middle school foreign language teachers didn't simply take a couple of ed courses in how to teach their subject at the middle school level; rather, most of them also MAJORED or, at least, minored in the subject in college.  Why aren't we requiring the same breathe and depth of content knowledge for our middle school mathematics teachers?  Do you really believe mastery of the middle school mathematics curriculum and how to teach it is sufficient content knowledge for teachers teaching math?  What happens when students ask questions that aren't answered in the teachers' manual?  What happens when students desire to know how the material they are studying relates to higher-level mathematics and other subjects such as science and engineering?

The MMSD has been waiting a long time already to have math-qualified teachers teaching mathematics in our middle schools.   Many countries around the world whose students outperform US students in mathematics only hire teachers who majored in the  subject to teach it.  Other school districts in the US are taking advantage of the current recession with high unemployment to hire and train people who know and love mathematics, but don't yet know how to teach it to others.  For example, see

If Madison continues to wait, we will miss out on this opportunity and yet another generation of middle schoolers will be struggling to success in high school.

The MMSD has a long history of taking many, many year to resolve most issues.  For example, the issue of students receiving high school credit for non-MMSD courses has been waiting 8 years and counting!  It has taken multiple years for the District's math task force to be formed, meet, write its report, and have its recommendations discussed.  For the sake of the District's students, we need many more math-qualified middle school teachers NOW.  Please act ASAP, giving serious consideration to our proposal below.  Thanks.

Posted by Janet Mertz at May 31, 2009 11:59 AM
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