The question below

What is the required mathematical background of a US elementary school math teacher?

was migrated from academia.stackexchange and the answers and comments included have a general tone of attacking a large segment of educators in a way that strikes me as unproductive gatekeeping.

For example, from perusing the thread, you can hear that elementary educators in the US know "a negative amount of math" or that the amount of math they know is "terrifying" or "ridiculously sad." In addition, the only people who teach elementary education are "the weakest college students" and current elementary educators who are in a college algebra class are likely to be "in tears" due to the difficulty.

I know the fact that elementary educators are in general not math experts, but they still teach math to our students, and the tone of everything above (especially the gatekeeping aspect that implies these are not "real" members of our community) worries me a lot.

  • Am I off-base that this content is toxic and does not fit in with the tone of our site?
  • If you agree with me that this content is distasteful, can we do anything to improve the tone? How?
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that I do not think it should be taboo to discuss the level of education of elementary educators. I do, however, think the way we talk about it should be respectful. For example, I did not complete the last degree I tried to complete (a Math Ph.D.), but I would not accept posts on this site that imply this outcome is "terrifying" or "ridiculously sad" or "laugh out loud" about me being in tears. $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2017 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ Just a comment, for now, as I was struck by the same: I agree that this content does not fit with the tone of MESE and that it is worrisome. I have no paradigm-shifting suggestions at the moment, although I tried to respond to it in three ways: (1) I upvoted your comments calling out the behavior; (2) I posted my own answer in which I made an effort to shift the tone; (3) I tweeted a link with the observation that there is "a bit of pessimism in the thread," and remarked that the question would do well with more answers. $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2017 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ So, I suppose my suggestions are: (0) call out the behavior; (1) support others for calling it out; (2) post answers that are non-toxic and do fit with the tone; and (3) try to bring others into the fold -- MESE would benefit from more users! -- who can speak from their lived [classroom] experience rather than cast stones. $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2017 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ There is a blind spot at math SE because of the level and type of practitioner. But it is better to argue out the specifics (of the actual content, not the angst on tone). Fire up the Google Scholar or at least the Google. Get some perspective from Renfro, etc. Don't rush so fast to moderation or to try to scold people. Over-moderation leads to group think. Over-sensitivity can be a weapon too, Chris. I think "mean threads" are about 1% of the reason why math-ed SE is dominated by juco instructors rather than elementary teachers. It's the topic coverage. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Dec 7, 2017 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ In both community-building and the classroom, the tone is prerequisite to the content. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2017 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @guest there are plenty of reasons to remove meanness from an intellectual community, sometimes to invite people in but often because it does nothing to further our understanding of the material or the discussion. Tone can absolutely detract from the accuracy of the information, and the purpose of meanness is most often to encourage groupthink, not free thinking. $\endgroup$
    – Nate Bade
    Dec 8, 2017 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ Bottom line, I didn't think it was that bad. So if you put some moderator action in place, you will do more damage than good. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Dec 8, 2017 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ And, believe it or not, I was one who winced a little (yes, mean tough me) at some of the comments. But you will really do more damage than help if you over control. It wasn't that bad. And you would do better to engage than to run to the thought police. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Dec 8, 2017 at 20:56

1 Answer 1


This is (way) too long for a comment, so I am going to post it as an answer:

I am in basic agreement with the statements being made in the above linked question. Elementary and secondary teachers in the US are often incredibly lacking in mathematical content knowledge, and (perhaps more importantly) are often quite math-phobic, having been scarred by bad mathematics instruction when they were in school. Thus if this question is about whether or not the statements are true or not, I can't fault the answers that were provided to the linked question.

However, my understanding is that the real complaint here is one of tone. Whether or not we agree on the state of elementary educator's content knowledge, I do agree that the tone of many of those answers is unpleasant and uncalled for. There is a real problem in the preparation that elementary teacher have, but part of fixing that problem is engaging with those teachers (something that the original questioner seems to be attempting to do!). You can't engage with people if you harbour open disdain for them.

As an aside, this essay (with bad drawings!) is relevant, and something that I try to keep in mind. When I worked through my secondary education credential, I scoffed at the woeful content knowledge of my fellow high-school-teachers-to-be, and wept for the primary ed folk, who knew nothing.

Then I taught high school and middle school for two years, and ran back to academia to pursue graduate work in pure math—I simply couldn't hack it in that environment. I don't like the "babysitting" aspect of teaching (particularly at the middle school level—I don't want to act in loco parentis, damnit!), dealing with parents is scary, and I get frustrated with answering the same question over and over again far too easily. It still upsets me that elementary and secondary teachers are often very limited mathematically, but it isn't a personal failing on their part, nor is it even really their fault (no one every asked them to learn mathematics, and many of their elementary and secondary instructors were probably as ill-prepared as they are now—they had no role models). And they have skills and abilities that are quite valuable which I very much lack.


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