College of Education answers demand for advanced training with Elementary Mathematics Specialist Certificate

Amy Hertert stands with one arm raised in front of her class of children sitting on the ground

Amy Hertert, a first grade teacher at Lafayette Preparatory Academy in St. Louis, leads a math lesson in her classroom. Hertert is one of 50 educators who entered the Elementary Mathematics Specialist Certificate program at UMSL this semester. The two-year, 24-credit cohort program verses educators in grade appropriate mathematics, application of pedagogy and leadership training. (Photo by August Jennewein)

For years, data has shown that students in the United States rank toward the middle of the pack in mathematics internationally, lagging behind peers in other industrialized nations.

Efforts to improve student achievement in mathematics face a number of challenges at the elementary level in particular, where teachers generally receive limited specialized training in the subject.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working to address those challenges and the demand for highly-trained elementary mathematics teachers with the help of the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and an innovative certification program.

In 2013, DESE established an advanced Elementary Math Specialist certification, and the program came to UMSL in 2016. The university is one of only six universities in the state offering the certification program, which is designed for full-time educators teaching grades one through six.

The two-year, 24-credit cohort program verses educators in grade appropriate mathematics specified by the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators and the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences, application of pedagogy and leadership training. This school year, DESE has provided funding for 800 public-school teachers to enter the program – 300 during the fall semester and another 500 during the spring semester.

Amber Candela, an associate professor of mathematics education and director of the Elementary Mathematics Specialist Certificate program at UMSL, said spots were in high demand. DESE received about 1,400 applications for 300 openings this fall. UMSL has already admitted and begun working with 50 students and will admit another 90 in the spring.

“It’s a unique space to be able to focus so much on mathematics,” Candela said. “It really supports the overall understanding of mathematics in elementary spaces. We are giving these teachers an opportunity to specialize in that subject area, and it’s exciting that all of these teachers are looking for this opportunity and are wanting to dig deeper into mathematics.”

Elementary educators must wear many hats, but Candela noted, for many, mathematics is not a strong suit. She added that research has shown that increasing teachers’ content knowledge leads to improved outcomes in the classroom. By facilitating a more in-depth understanding of mathematics, the program aims to help educators teach the subject more effectively and in turn better support students’ learning.

In addition to those benefits, the program also encourages professional development. It not only prepares participants to act as knowledgeable mathematics teachers at the elementary level, but also as administrators and supervisors of mathematics programs and mathematics coaches and interventionists.

“I think it’s really about finding the people who are passionate about mathematics in elementary schools and supporting their endeavor to become coaches and interventionists, so they can focus on mathematics in their schools,” Candela said. “That’s really going to support the school because you have that expertise that schools traditionally haven’t had.”

Amy Hertert, a veteran first grade teacher at Lafayette Preparatory Academy in St. Louis, is one such person. LPA strongly advocates for professional development among its teachers, particularly in math, and Hertert said the school’s math specialist began promoting the opportunity at UMSL last spring. After looking into it, she became excited about the idea of an extensive deep dive into math across grade levels.

“I wanted to have a stronger sense of how math works across time for students,” she said. “That’s what drew my interest to the program. I didn’t feel like I was lacking in professional development with math. I just felt like this was an opportunity to spend two years looking at math in a deeper way. That was really exciting for me.”

In her own academic career, Hertert was a good math student, but she didn’t connect with the subject in the same way some other students did. It wasn’t until she took elementary mathematics courses while working toward her education degree that she started to have a stronger connection to it, especially the “why” behind things like equations and order of operations.

For educators and students alike, the “why” is often a stumbling block. Candela said new mathematics reforms were implemented in schools to address that issue by thinking beyond rote memorization.

“We’re trying to shift more to understanding and conceptual understanding,” Candela said. “If kids can make connections in their brains, and they understand the reasons for what they’re doing, they’re going to enjoy mathematics more. They’re going to be better at mathematics.”

Hertert has already made a few small adjustments in her classroom based on program coursework that have produced positive results. For example, she’s been more intentional with her language when discussing number bonds, or two numbers and sum (e.g. 2+2=4), when students are learning about parts and a whole.

In the past, Hertert would have said, “three and seven is 10,” but she’s altered her approach slightly to say, “three and seven is the same as 10.” She explained that the former expresses the procedural idea that the equal sign means, “the answer is.” However, the latter helps students consider both sides of the equation – an important concept as they advance in school.

“Then students are holding onto the notion that the three and the seven on one side of the equal sign is the same as the value of 10 on the other,” she said. “It’s allowed more of a relational understanding of the equal sign.”

Hertert has enjoyed that level of practicality.

“I think that the program, so far, has had a really fabulous balance of theory and pedagogy, coupling that with hands-on activities, ideas and concepts that I can apply directly to my practice, which is really important,” she said.

The program has also convened a diverse group of teachers from across the region, which has provided insight into how students from different backgrounds are responding to the same ideas.

“You’re sitting in a room with people in school districts all over and people who are in multiple grade levels,” Hertert said. “So it’s a really great way to have some cross sections of how people are experiencing the same concepts with different curriculum and also different age groups.”

Candela is excited about the work the program is doing and is optimistic more elementary educators will look to UMSL to further their education.

“I love mathematics, and I find math to be joyful,” Candela said. “This gives me hope that more teachers are finding that same joy and deciding that they want to go and dig deeper into the mathematics than they were able to as students.”

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