WASHINGTON - Joanne Tegethoff teaches algebra. Never mind that her students carry Disney princess and Thomas the Tank Engine backpacks and have the alphabet taped on their desks.

Tegethoff used to teach what she called "very boring math," using worksheets of addition and subtraction problems. Now her first graders delve into algebraic thinking. By the third grade, Viers Mill Elementary students in Silver Spring, Md., are solving equations with letters and variables.

Long a high-school staple, introductory algebra is becoming a standard course in middle school for college-bound students. That trend is putting new pressure on such schools as Viers Mill to insert the building blocks of algebra into math lessons in the earliest grades.

Disappointing U.S. scores on international math tests have added to the urgency of a movement spilling into kindergarten. At stake, some politicians say, is the country's ability to produce scientists to compete in the global economy.

But education experts say too many elementary-school teachers lack the know-how to teach math effectively.

Many elementary- and middle-school teachers are drawn by a love of children and literacy. Most had little exposure to high-level math in college.

"Many of them fear math," said Vickie Inge, math outreach director at the University of Virginia.

Educators, mathematicians and business leaders are working to bridge the knowledge gap. The National Math & Science Initiative, funded by ExxonMobil, and the National Science Foundation are granting universities and school systems millions of dollars for programs to produce better teachers.

Test scores released this month reignited concerns about math education. The Program for International Student Assessment found U.S. 15-year-olds trailed peers from 23 industrialized countries in math.

What's more, Michigan State University professor William Schmidt found that U.S. teachers scored at the bottom of the pack on an algebra test in a recent study from six countries. Teachers in Korea and Taiwan had the best scores.