Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Back To The Future For Math Teachers

The recruitment of talented math teachers continues to be one of the most daunting challenges facing today's public school administrators. Now, some folks are using a recruiting strategy that was developed during America's "Space Race" with the Soviets:
Business and science groups are reviving images of the Cold War space race in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spend millions to recruit and train high-caliber math teachers.

They argue that, just as a stronger focus on math helped the United States top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the country needs to improve math education to win an economic race with China and India and a national security race against terrorism.

Groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers' attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate U.S. math and science efforts.

"The interesting sort of difference in the dynamic then and the dynamic now is that we were competing with a military threat, whereas now it's much more an economic threat," said Susan Traiman, an education and work force policy lobbyist for the Business Roundtable.

It may be a hard sell in Washington.

Though it's unlikely anyone in Congress will say math isn't important, it may be tough to persuade lawmakers to devote new money to hiring and training teachers in a time of tight budgets. Some may feel there's no need politically or practically for a major education initiative just four years after President Bush's overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some proposals suggest using taxpayer money to boost pay for math teachers, an idea opposed by the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association. It wants higher salaries for all teachers, regardless of specialty. NEA also doesn't like the notion of paying teachers of particular subjects more than others.

"If you focus on working conditions that are good, salaries that are commensurate to one's ability in the field, one's professionalism, you would not have to worry about whether you had enough professionals coming into the field," NEA President Reg Weaver said.

The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, an epic event to Americans alive at the time but now known to many only from brief references in history class. The United States sent Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk in 1969, ancient history for students now debating whether to take a tough high school math class or pursue math careers.

Business lobbies -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and TechNet, a group of high-tech CEOs -- are pressing for a national push on math. And some in business have already started pursuing math teacher improvement efforts on their own.

Raytheon, General Electric and IBM are among companies with programs aimed at making math cool: turning children on to math and improving math education.

Math for America offers scholarships, mentoring and pay bonuses to math whizzes who become teachers. The program was founded by Jim Simons, who earned a doctorate in math through a Pentagon program during the space race, worked as a math professor and went on to found a hedge fund and become a Wall Street billionaire.

Simons has hired a Washington lobbyist to urge the government to establish a program like his nationwide, and references to the Sputnik launch are also part of that lobbying effort. Simons vividly recalls the day Sputnik launched.

"Congress went bananas, said, 'Oh my God, the next thing, they'll have atomic bombs on the moon,"' Simons said. That prompted the government to invest in recruiting mathematicians and scientists and led to higher pay for math and science professors, he said.

Simons sees a shortage of people teaching math who really know math, and he thinks the solution is simple: Recruit people who know and love math, pay them enough to make teaching attractive, and they in turn will inspire more students to choose math careers.
This is one of those rare times that I actually agree with Reg Weaver, the never-elected-by-the-union-rank-and-file President of the National Education Association.

The best way to attract more high calibre professionals into all of America's public school classrooms is to improve working conditions on the country's campuses and stop the erosion of teachers' salaries due to the effects of inflation.

In other words, high-quality talent is always expensive.

Most folks know very well that the law of supply and demand an how it affects the price and quality of consumer goods and services, but many don't know that these same economic forces also apply to all types of labor.

The better the compensation (and in our capitalist country that means status)the more folks who will want to enter that particular career field.

Why do so many think that classroom teaching is any different than any other skilled occupation?

If society wants better teachers to serve in the classroom, society has to pay them what they're worth and treat them as the professionals they are.
See our latest education-related posts right here. See today's edition of The Carnival Of Education, guest hosted by Diane Weir, over there.