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Grant will fund MU study of math learning outcomes

COLUMBIA — Education researchers at the University of Missouri will receive nearly $2.3 million from the National Science Foundation over the next four years to study elementary students’ mathematics learning outcomes in relation to teacher expertise and classroom assignment.

The researchers will monitor the impact of using elementary mathematics specialists – teachers who have been certified through a two-year program of study – and how the specialists are assigned in schools (whether they teach all subjects to one class or teach multiple sections of math to different classes). The results will help school and district leaders throughout the nation better determine how to use their elementary teaching staff to provide all students with high-quality mathematics instruction.

“In the United States, most elementary teachers are generalists, unlike middle or high school teachers who focus on specific content areas,” said Barbara Reys, Curators’ Professor and Lois Knowles Faculty Fellow in the MU College of Education. “Improving student achievement in mathematics at the elementary level is challenging because teachers must be knowledgeable about many content areas and rarely study mathematics in depth in college. This lack of content-specific training is problematic because research has shown that students’ mathematics learning improves when their teachers have mathematical knowledge and expertise.”

In 2012, the Missouri State Board of Education approved the Elementary Mathematics Specialist (EMS) certificate, a program that recognizes 24 hours of graduate-level coursework and focuses on improving the mathematics content and teaching expertise of elementary teachers. The University of Missouri and four other Missouri institutions began to implement the 24-credit program in 2013. The program, which is one of a few nationwide, includes 75 elementary teachers in its first cohort.

Reys and a team of University of Missouri researchers, including Corey Webel, an assistant professor of mathematics education, will study teaching and student learning in multiple Missouri public schools. For the study, 40 EMS teachers will be assigned to teach two or more sections of mathematics. Another 40 EMS teachers will remain in self-contained classrooms and teach all subjects to their students, while 40 non-EMS teachers will do the same. At the end of the school year, the researchers will compare students’ mathematics performance to gauge the impact of each instructional model. Reys and Webel will observe and analyze instructional strategies employed by the teachers.

Webel said the aim of the project is to advance a discussion about supporting improved teaching of mathematics at the elementary level.

“The ultimate goal is to improve students’ mathematics learning outcomes,” he said. “We know that having teachers who know mathematics and can use it to design and implement sound instruction corresponds to stronger student performance. Exploring ways to provide more students with access to these teachers is important.”

Additionally, the researchers hope the study encourages more elementary teachers to specialize in mathematics education, Webel said.

The project, “Studying Teacher Expertise and Assignment in Mathematics (STEAM),” will be led by Reys, who also is co-director of the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum at the University of Missouri. Project co-investigators from the College of Education include Webel, James Tarr and Nianbo Dong. The researchers currently are recruiting school districts and teachers to participate in the study, which will be implemented in schools during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

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