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EMS: Expanding the Capacity of Mathematics Educators

Elementary Math Specialist

Elementary school teachers generally receive one year of basic mathematics education in preparation for teaching mathematics to their future students. Yet according to the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, that basic education results in only 56% of teachers feeling well prepared to teach measurement, 54% for geometry, and 46% for early algebra. This perception teachers have that they are not well prepared to teach mathematics often leads teachers to seek additional resources for providing rich opportunities for their students to learn mathematics. Funded by the CME Group Foundation, the Learning Sciences Research Institute (LSRI) in collaboration with teams from the University of Chicago and DePaul University have developed and implemented the Elementary Mathematics Specialist (EMS) program with the aim of providing useful resources and of generally enhancing teachers’ capacity to teach PreK–6 mathematics.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the program consists of five consecutive courses over a two-year period. Goals for participating teachers include providing a deepened understanding of mathematics and of how PreK through sixth-grade children learn mathematics, as well as providing opportunities for exploring how to advocate for and improve the quality and coherence of mathematics instruction in their schools and districts.

Kathleen Pitvorec, a mathematics educator and Research Assistant Professor at LSRI, and Mary Jo Tavormina, Project Director of the Metro Chicago Mathematics Initiative (MCMI), are co-instructors for the EMS courses at UIC. Kathleen stated that “one reason these courses are so necessary is because what we currently expect our elementary teachers to do in terms of teaching math is not something most of them are likely to have experienced in their own education.” Mary Jo pointed out that “the evolution of mathematics education towards a focus on developing conceptual understanding and problem-solving abilities has increased the need for greater expertise in teaching elementary school mathematics.” Through the EMS program Tavormina and Pitvorec strive to provide rich experiences that will support teachers in becoming math specialists who are better prepared to meet today’s expectations for math teaching and learning.

About 30 states formally recognize Math Specialists with some kind of certification or licensure process. Illinois has begun to explore the creation of a recognized credential for Elementary Mathematics Specialists. In an effort to support the state in justifying the necessity of this credentialing, University of Chicago collaborators Dr. Gudelia López and Martin Gartzman, conducted a landscape study exploring statewide interest and need. The results of the study, published in July, 2020, clearly indicate that districts across the state recognize the need for Math Specialists. López and Gartzman have presented and discussed the report with representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Although the pandemic temporarily interrupted these discussions, ISBE and a collaborative team from the three universities have rekindled the conversation and are continuing to explore credentialling for math specialists in Illinois.

One early concern was how teachers across Illinois might have access to this credential without established programs distributed throughout the state. At UIC, our courses have had a hybrid design from their inception, and the successful move to being fully online during this past year suggests that, even beginning with only Chicago-based institutions, we will be able to successfully offer these courses for teachers across the state.

During the pandemic, the EMS course sessions became a safe space where the teachers in this cohort could share their frustrations as well as their successes. As time went on and teachers learned how to teach their own students in an online environment, they began to troubleshoot together and support each other in improving their practice. Throughout the move to online instruction, Tavormina and Pitvorec explored new strategies together with their teachers. This shared exploration, which included Tavormina and Pitvorec meeting for several hours each week, to plan together and to evaluate how certain course design elements were fostering learning and community building, may have contributed to strengthening relationships in the cohort during this difficult time. In addition, the EMS program has served as a stepping stone for some teachers to further their education and preparedness for teaching mathematics. Pitvorec noted that approximately 25% of the students from the current cohort have gone on to enroll in the Master of Science in Teaching Mathematics (MST) program in the Math Department at UIC.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve learned,” said Pitvorec. “Teachers enter our program with a desire to build their capacity, and through their experiences in the courses, they establish a new narrative of teaching and learning mathematics that involves rigor AND fun.”