University Courses on
Mathematics and Science Content Knowledge
Context: What the Literature Tells Us
Across the community of math and science educators and educational researchers, there is a view that K-12 teachers need a stronger background in math and science for their students to do well in these subjects. Various sources support this view, and research literature addresses relevant questions such as:
- Does a teacher’s depth of knowledge of math and science influence student learning?
- What types of teacher content understanding influence student learning?
- What is the relationship between content understanding and effective instructional practices?
- What are characteristics of strong district-university partnerships, given the university role in this work?
A review of 25 math and science professional development programs concluded that strong emphasis on math and science content was a common feature shared by programs that positively affected student learning (Blank, et al., 2008). Research on teachers’ math knowledge reinforces this finding. Hill, Rowan, and Ball (2005) found in their multi-method, longitudinal, and large-scale study that teachers’ mathematical knowledge does relate to student achievement in elementary school math. At the high school level, Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2007) used certification in math as a proxy for having adequate math content knowledge. They found that when certified teachers taught students, these students’ achievement in math was stronger by a statistically significant degree than students whose teachers were not certified. Interestingly, these researchers did not find that a teacher’s certification in biology had a comparable relationship with their students’ achievement in biology (p. 26). However, studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between subject matter knowledge in science and good teaching practice across grade levels for pre- and in-service teachers. The studies used a variety of measures to assess teacher knowledge and teaching effectiveness. In general, high levels of subject matter knowledge were positively correlated with effective teaching practices, such as the use of hands-on and laboratory activities, decreased dependence on texts, better ability to plan and carry out lessons, and higher comfort levels with facilitating student discussions (Abell & Lederman, 2007).
Merely increasing teacher content knowledge is not helpful in increasing student achievement if the content is not connected to the experience of teaching. In other words, teachers need to learn content in ways that are connected to the classroom (Cohen & Hill, 1999) for the professional development to be effective in improving student achievement. Researchers continue to develop an understanding of specific types of teacher knowledge connected to teaching, building on the concept of pedagogical content knowledge or PCK, a term introduced by Shulman (Shulman, 1986).
Universities have been at the forefront of professional development for mathematics and science content knowledge. For example, programs at the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and many state agencies now require school-university partnerships for some grants addressing teacher professional development. Clifford and Millar (2007) reviewed the empirical studies of how these educational partnerships work. They noted that while these studies offer some information about factors that influence the partnership, this body of research lacks clear definitions of partnerships and rigorous research design. Still, findings suggested the importance of the features of healthy K-20 partnerships, including:
- Leadership will,
- Shared purpose or problem,
- Open communication,
- Established governance structure,
- Adequate resources, and
- Trust and respect among partners (Clifford & Millar, 2007, p. 14).