Drawing our best math and science minds into the classroom
Fifty-three years ago Americans were shocked by the launch of Sputnik. Convinced that the Soviet success was rooted in a sophisticated level of scientific enterprise and its application to defense, we initiated a massive effort to catch up.
A cornerstone of this was the National Defense Education Act, designed to radically expand America's cadre of high-level scientists and engineers. In 1961, I was the first person in the United States to complete a doctorate under its auspices, one of about 300 PhDs in mathematics earned here that year. A decade later the number was 1,400, with similar increases in the physical sciences and engineering. By then our defense labs and university research centers teemed with brilliant folks. We went on to win the space race, and our scientific advantage helped set the stage for victory in the Cold War.
Today our economic well-being, not just military defense or advantage, is dependent on math and science. All of the world's major countries are our competitors. So far we're not exactly winning.
There is another relevant national precedent. At the outset of World War II, we had to build an air force. We needed to train thousands of pilots - fast. When each class of airmen graduated, ready to be deployed and shoot down Messerschmitts, a few were held back stateside. The best students were assigned to teach the next class or two, on the theory that the best pilots would make the most effective and inspiring teachers. Eventually they, too, went abroad, but first they did a heck of a lot of good at home.
In today's technology-based economic contest, we seem to be taking the opposite approach: In science and math, too often it is the least able who teach. That was not the prescription for victory in World War II, and it won't work now.
While many countries have recognized the need to better educate young people for success, the United States is going in the wrong direction. Testing shows that in the past 25 years, our fourth-graders have improved a fair amount in math skills and our eighth-graders have improved somewhat, but our 12th-graders have not improved at all. This is consistent with accepted international math comparisons, in which the skills of our eighth-graders are at about the median compared with their counterparts in other nations but by 12th grade they fall almost to the bottom. Whatever is happening during high school, the result is that too few of our kids who go on to college are prepared or inspired to major in math, science or engineering, the bedrock of the new economy.
Ironically, the economy in which we must strive to excel has increasingly pulled away from the blackboard the very people we need to do so. Chances are that those who know enough math, physics or biology to properly teach these subjects in high school can get higher-paying jobs in industries that confer considerably more respect and prestige. This compensation gap has led to fewer high school teachers of math and science being truly qualified for their positions.
There is no substitute for a gifted teacher who knows and loves his or her subject. And, short of repealing the law of supply and demand, the normal workings of our public education establishment cannot solve the problem. In private industry, a shortage of workers in a given specialty is typically corrected by improvements in compensation and working conditions. Labor unions are part of this process, where the market for various trade specialties is reflected in differing wage scales. Yet in the education establishment, unions have historically insisted on uniform pay scales across disciplines, independent of what market forces might dictate. Moreover, school board members, superintendents or even principals typically have little if any background in math or science and recognize neither the depth nor the importance of the problem.
Yet even with such formidable obstacles, there is a straightforward solution.
Six years ago a group of us established a pilot program to attract and retain highly qualified, subject-knowledgeable mathematics teachers for the New York public school system. By supplying scholarship aid where required, providing meaningful stipends to supplement salaries for new and experienced teachers, and convening professional seminars and workshops, Math for America has created more than 300 outstanding teachers in New York. (Teachers unions have not objected to the stipends, which come as fellowships from outside the system.) Affiliates are operating in Los Angeles, San Diego and the District, with Boston, San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the works.
This initiative, financed primarily by private philanthropy, is a drop in the bucket compared with what is needed. Enter the feds.
Among the seven principal recommendations in a presidential advisers' report on K-through-12 math and science education last month, two are roughly modeled after Math for America. Implemented intelligently and at sufficient scale, they could go a long way toward righting our debilitating national education imbalance.
First is a scholarship program to encourage college students majoring in math, science and engineering to simultaneously prepare for careers teaching these subjects. Few of these bright folks even consider secondary school teaching. But entering the profession is one thing; staying in it is another.
The second recommendation, a National Math/Science Master Teacher Corps, addresses the heart of the issue, the need to make the profession more attractive. Selection would be based on subject knowledge, as measured by a nationally administered exam, and on evidenced skill in teaching and inspiring students. During their five-year renewable terms, members would receive annual federal stipends boosting their regular salaries roughly 25 percent, participate in corps activities, and act as leaders in their departments and schools. The corps would initially aim to comprise 5 percent of the nation's 450,000 teachers of math and science, and grow to as much as 20 percent. These able, knowledgeable individuals would inspire students and colleagues, and at maximum size this transformational program would cost roughly $2 billion per year. America could make no better investment.
The writer is a mathematician and retired founder of Renaissance Technologies.