Mathematics Preparation of Elementary Teachers: Results of a National Survey

Brooke M. Max and Jill A. Newton, Purdue University


Multiple professional organizations have provided guidelines for the mathematics preparation of elementary teachers. For example, the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences’ (CBMS, 2012) The Mathematical Education of Teachers II (MET II) and the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators’ (AMTE, 2017) Standards for Preparing Teachers of Mathematics both addressed mathematical content and practices that preservice elementary teachers (PSTs) should know and experience. In order to gain a sense of the ways in which teacher education programs are addressing these and other guidelines, we administered a national survey to investigate aspects of current programs (e.g., course requirements, licensing options), instructor backgrounds (e.g., teaching experience K-12 and beyond, research interests), and detailed information about the Mathematics Content for Elementary Teachers (MCfET) courses (e.g., resources utilized, attention to state and/or national practice standards). 

Two previous surveys (Masingila, Olanoff, & Kwaka, 2012; McCrory, Francis, & Young, 2008) reported on various aspects of MCfET courses, including instructor backgrounds, support for instructors, their familiarity with National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) process standards, and the use of textbooks. Our survey expanded this work by collecting additional information about credit hour requirements for programs, inclusion of the 2012 CBMS content domains and Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practices (SMPs; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010), and resources utilized beyond textbooks. In addition, we requested course syllabi and class activities. Utilizing snowball sampling throughout the three weeks the survey was open, we emailed members of various professional groups (e.g., AMTE, STaR) and requested that they both respond to the survey and share it with other mathematics teacher educators (MTEs). The survey included questions about the respondents (e.g., What is your role and how long have you been serving in that role?), programs (e.g., How many courses and credits in mathematics are required to be eligible for initial certification in the elementary education program?), and MCfET courses (e.g., Which textbook, technology, manipulatives, and other resources are used in this course?). Because questions did not require answering before moving on in the survey, the number of responses for each question varied. As noted earlier, a syllabus was requested for any course the instructor had previously taught or was currently teaching.

Who were the respondents?

Due to the generous time commitment of MTEs, we collected 120 completed surveys and 75 course syllabi. One-hundred fifteen of these responses came from institutions that offer certification in elementary education across 31 states. This report will include results from the 115 respondents in 103 programs and descriptions of 82 MCfET courses from 44 MTEs. Depending on the question, we designate the “n” when 100% of the appropriate category was not acquired.

All of the respondents held an instructor position at the post-secondary level, averaging nine years of experience. Therefore, we will refer to the respondents as MTEs. In addition to teaching, 33% of the MTEs had advisor responsibilities and 21% served as program coordinators. Eighty-five percent of the MTEs averaged six years of experience as a high school (59%), middle school (53%), and/or elementary (41%) classroom teacher, with 53% experienced in teaching in at least two of the three levels. Forty-four percent, 35%, and 17% (n =113) were affiliated with education, mathematics, or both departments, respectively. In terms of research, the MTEs reported studying mathematics education (86%), mathematics, (3%), or reported no research area (6%).

How were their elementary teacher education programs structured?

The programs required an average of 1.8 (n = 79) MCfET courses, 1.2 (n = 83) mathematics methods courses, 1.2 (n = 63) general mathematics courses, and 0.8 (n = 52) courses in which mathematics pedagogy and content were equally combined; these courses were worth approximately 6, 4, 4, and 3 semester credit hours, respectively. More than three-fourths of the responding institutions (n = 74) graduate at least 26 elementary education students annually, with the largest group (34%) graduating between 50 and 100 students. Programs reported preparing teachers for a wide range of grades, with 35% for K-8 grade levels and 25% for K-6 (n = 91). Most students reportedly take the MCfET courses in their first (51%) or second (62%) year (n = 82).

Who teaches the MCfET courses and which resources do they use?

Faculty reportedly teach the vast majority of MCfET courses (91%); much less often staff (17%) or graduate students (16%) teach the courses. Nearly all (95%, n = 81) of the MTEs reported a greater focus on mathematics than pedagogy in the MCfET courses, with these courses most frequently housed in the mathematics department (84%, n = 41).

Eighty-four percent of the MTEs reported using a textbook in their MCfET course. Of those, 65 included the name of the textbook used (edition not declared), producing a list of 12 textbooks. Table 1 presents the textbooks mentioned by more than 10% of the MTEs. Readings, other than the assigned textbook, were required in 31% (n = 78) of the courses, with nearly one-fifth of those published in Teaching Children Mathematics.

Table 1



Relative Frequency of Textbook Use in MCfET Courses





Mathematics for Elementary Teachers with Activities



Billstein, Libeskind, & Lott   


A Problem Solving Approach to Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers



Sowder, Sowder, & Nickerson


Reconceptualizing Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers





Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers



Instructors of 92% (n = 79) of the MCfET courses reported using manipulatives: pattern block pieces (63%), base ten or other base pieces (53%), tiles (53%), fraction bars (43%), and geometric solids (29%). MTEs used technology themselves or had their students use technology in 78% (n = 81) of the MCfET courses as they reported utilizing document cameras (63%), calculators (58%), PowerPoint (37%), and dynamic geometry software (23%) most often. Respondents also self-reported the use of a SMART Board™, iPad®, and Desmos graphing calculator.

MTEs addressed national or state standards, either content and/or practice, in 87% (n = 79) of MCfET courses; content standards, practice standards, and other standards were addressed in 66%, 62%, and 35%, respectively. Eleven percent of the MTEs reported explicitly referencing NCTM standards. Each of the eight SMPs was given attention in at least 73% (n = 74) of the courses, with 14% reportedly not addressing them at all. The SMP referencing making sense of problems and perseverance in solving them was most frequently mentioned. This SMP, along with attention to precision, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, constructing viable arguments, using tools strategically, and making use of structure were present in at least 80% of the courses. MTEs indicated that pre-service teachers largely experienced SMPs through the instructors' lessons as learners (88%, n = 69), and less often asked students to read SMPs (46%), facilitated lessons using SMPs as the teacher (23%), and had students create lesson plans addressing SMPs (7%).

In MET II, CBMS (2012) recommended a set of content “domains” for PSTs. MTEs reported coverage of these domains with a range of 47%-65% (n = 81) in MCfET courses with the following frequencies: Operations and Algebraic Thinking (65%), Number and Operations with Fractions (62%), Number and Operations in Base Ten (59%), Measurement (57%), Geometry (52%), and Counting and Cardinality (47%).


The MTEs who responded to this survey of elementary teacher education programs, many of whom also had experience teaching K-12 school, had a strong research interest in mathematics education. In these preparation programs, MCfET courses are the largest subset of mathematics courses taken by PSTs, typically in their first or second year. The variety of resources used by instructors in those courses include, but are not limited to: textbooks, manipulatives, technology, and national or state standards. Recommendations of content domains from CBMS and SMPs from Common Core are given attention by most instructors of MCfET courses. This survey data is an initial step in understanding the programs and resources used by instructors and their preparation of PSTs in MCfET courses. More detailed analyses of this data (e.g., syllabi analyses, activity analyses) will be disseminated by the authors in forthcoming conferences and publications.   


Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. (2017). Standards for preparing teachers of mathematics. Retrieved from:

Bassarear, T. (2016). Mathematics for elementary school teachers. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Beckmann, S. (2014). Mathematics for elementary teachers with activities. (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Billstein, R., Libeskind, S., & Lott, J. (2013). A problem solving approach to mathematics for elementary school teachers. (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education. 

Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences. (2012). The mathematical education of teachers II. Providence, RI and Washington, DC: American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America.

Masingila, J. O., Olanoff, D. E., & Kwaka, D. K. (2012). Who teaches mathematics content courses for prospective elementary teachers in the United States? Results of a national survey. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education15(5), 347-358.

McCrory, R., Francis, A., & Young, S. (2008). Resource use by instructors of mathematics classes for future elementary teachers: Results of a survey. Monterrey, Mexico: Paper presented at the International Committee on Mathematics Instruction (ICMI-11).

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: Authors.

Sowder, J., Sowder, L., & Nickerson, S. (2013). Reconceptualizing mathematics for elementary school teachers. (2nd ed.). Macmillan Higher Education.