Monday, March 13, 2006

Math Monday: The Hunt For Qualified Math Teachers

An interesting Op/Ed by Jonathan David Farley that appeared in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle poses an intriguing question: In light of President Bush's increased emphasis on improving math education, where are these math teachers going to come from?
In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush stressed the importance of improving math education. He proposed to "train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math."

But where will these teachers come from? And will the training of teachers be sufficient to increase the number of students choosing math and science careers? And why does all this matter?

Because mathematics is the foundation of the natural sciences. It is no coincidence that Isaac Newton, the man who formulated the law of gravitational attraction that revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was also the man who popularized the calculus. And the natural sciences, however pure, are what give us airplanes, cable TV and the Internet.

In the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, a test that measures math literacy, American 15-year-olds performed worse than their peers in 23 countries, as well as those in Hong Kong. It's not hard to see why. According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 40 percent of the nation's middle school math teachers do not have the equivalent of an undergraduate minor in math. The average starting salary of a teacher is only $30,000, whereas the average starting salary for a recent college graduate in computer science or engineering is $50,000.

Short of following the British, who have proposed paying experienced math teachers more than $100,000, with a guaranteed minimum of $70,000, where will we find a way to attract the thousands of teachers George Bush wants?

New York State initiated an innovative program to bring teachers from Jamaica for two or four years to teach in New York schools. Jamaica, a developing nation where one U.S. dollar equals 65 Jamaican dollars, is nonetheless a stable, English-speaking nation with an unbroken democratic tradition; it stands poised to beat the United States in establishing the world's first Institute for Mathematical Methods in Counterterrorism. When teachers for the New York program were recruited on the campus of the University of the West Indies, recruiters found more experienced math and science teachers than they ever dreamed they would.

But you can have all the teachers in the world and still not inspire kids to learn math. My friend Autumn e-mailed me about her nephew, Joshua: "He's upset because he's asked several of the math teachers why math is important or what are certain formulas used for -- there has to be a use, correct?"

Autumn told her nephew about my work in counterterrorism and for the television crime drama "Numb3rs." Autumn reported, "He's told his math teachers about you as well, and about the show 'Numb3rs.' He's informing them that through something called lattice theory you are managing to fight terrorists -- all with math."

Mathematics is art, and should be appreciated for its beauty, not simply for its utility. But we cannot expect 11 year-olds to cherish totally order-disconnected topological spaces as much as professional mathematicians do.
Consider reading the entire piece.

Did you notice that Farley enthusiastically endorses the recruitment of foreigners to teach math in our public school classrooms? I've always thought it interesting that whenever there's a real or perceived "teacher shortage," the powers-that-be flood the labor pool with thousands of "emergency credentialed" personnel with little or no training in instructional methods or classroom experience.

Historically, the "critical need" was to simply put "warm bodies" into the classroom as economically as possible.

Well... in our consumer-oriented-one's-status-is-determined-by-one's-salary culture, I guess we get what we pay for.

We must be running out of Americans willing to do this work at the wages offered because now they're even recruiting foreigners to teach kids in our public schools.

It's strange to me that those who advocate that the "free market" should set the prices for the merchandise that we buy down at the local Wal-Mart seem to forget that those same free market forces ought to be permitted to influence the cost of labor as well.

Adam Smith, the Prophet of Free Enterprise, wouldn't have had it any other way.

Here's a never-been-tried-before idea: Instead of looking for ways to "game the system" by flooding the labor pool with foreigners and the unprepared/inexperienced in order to fill these critical teaching jobs, why not allow the laws of supply and demand to work when it comes to recruiting teachers?

Certainly, teacher salaries would increase. And so would the number of bright and talented people seeking to earn those salaries.

With a larger pool of applicants, school districts can be much more selective in the teachers that they do hire.

This really is the only way to ensure the long-term viability of a highly-qualified corps of professional teachers dedicated to serving our nation's children.

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