As Congress was busily marking up a major math-science bill, 40 of the nation's brightest and most energetic high school seniors were assembled at the other end of town to be honored as finalists in the 42nd annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
An incongruous pair of events: the students, proud, happy and distinguished; Congress earnestly logrolling, giving this to that interest group and that to this interest group as it proposes to spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars to "improve math and science instruction in the U.S." Distributed as Congress envisions it, it will be more of the same, some teacher training and summer institutes. It is a plan to distribute federal money an inch deep and a mile wide: $300 million is about $6 per school-age child.
Spending money this way is certainly supported by ample precedent: keep the interest groups happy by giving a little to everyone. But it makes no sense as a math- science program. It will not improve teaching or learning to any appreciable degree.
What will improve math-science instruction was amply demonstrated at the Westinghouse Awards ceremony: a genuine commitment to excellence, high intelligence, very hard work, and a reward structure that recognizes these things. In fact, to discover how one improves math and science teaching and learning, simply look to those who do it well already. The Westinghouse award winners, a remarkable group of students, reveal a good deal.
Of the 40 finalists, 10 were awarded substantial scholarships. Of these 10, eight were from New York; four were Asian American, one black, one Hispanic, four white; five were young men, five young women.
The grand prize winner, Paul Ning, is a 16-year-old Taiwan-born student at the Bronx High School of Science. His comments speak volumes: "I'd finish my homework in half an hour and then go into this. I often worked into the wee hours." Among the Westinghouse "alumni," five have won Nobel prizes. The secret of their success is not just innate brilliance, though that was amply represented; it was discipline, hard work, and access to real mathematicians and scientists. The chairman of the judging panel, Dr. David Axelrod, says that "many of these students have sought contact with scientists, who have given of their time."
These students--and the remaining 30 who did not win major prizes--are the product of schools and families that care about math and science; and their teachers know their subjects and know how to teach. Even more important, the 40 in Washington were just the visible ones: more than 13,000 students entered the competition. What does this mean for the nation as it worries about the math-science "crisis"?
The single most important thing that could be done to improve science and math instruction is a simple, direct and easily understood structural change: impose the discipline of the market on teachers' salaries. Increase the pay of good math and science teachers. The issue is not just more money, it is how that money is spent.
Three elements are involved. First, rational criteria for math and science teacher licensing must be established. For example, teachers of high school mathematics should hold a bachelor's degree in mathematics from an acceptable institution or pass a stiff examination; they do not need a raft of education courses. On the contrary, they should be spared education courses, just as university math and science teachers are.
Second, offer science and math courses only if qualified teachers are in the classroom (internists don't do the work of surgeons; equally, there is no rational reason to reassign kindergarten teachers to calculus courses unless they can pass a math examination).
Third, pay the salary required to attract qualified teachers. And if the school district can't or won't pay the going wage for mathe maticians and scientists, no courses
should be offered. Half-baked science
and math classes do more harm than
good; it is better not to offer them at all.
The National Education Association
is horrified by salary differentials, as serting that math and science are no
more important than anything else,
that all teachers of equivalent experi ence should be paid the same. Now, it
is true that math and science are in trinsically no more important than
English literature or Latin. Most of us
assume that in the eyes of God, an
English teacher is the moral equal of
the math teacher. But that is not the
issue: the question is how to raise
standards, improve performance and
get math and science teachers back
into the classroom.
In a society that believes in division of labor and compensation for performance, there is no mystery. It is important to remember that there is no shortage of mathematicians and scientists: the "teacher shortage" is the problem. There is no teacher shortage either, simply a serious imbalance in supply and demand.
The "equality of all teachers" solution offered by the NEA condemns us to the continuing equality of mediocrity. If the recent congressional pay raise is any example, one might assume that Congress believes you get what you pay for. But unfortunately, the modern Congress is not likely to endorse higher pay for qualified math and science teachers because of the political muscle of the NEA.
The spectacle of congressional activity in this area is enough to make one long for the good old days, when logrolling was a class act and not a matter of scattering crumbs to special interest groups. Once upon a time powerful committee chairmen kept the rewards for themselves and their constituents. (Remember Mendel Rivers and the amount spent for military installations in his district? When youuget right down to it, it makes as much sense as any other way to distribute the largess.)
In the case of science and mathematics, we might all be better off if Carl Perkins would simply target most of the funds for his congressional district. A few hundred million dollars for math and science in eastern Kentucky has a certain appeal to it; and it could make quite an impact. With that kind of money, Perkins and the various school officials of his district could afford to hire 50 or 100 of the past Westinghouse science winners at competitive salaries and turn part of Appalachia into a math-science lighthouse for the nation.
It couldn't happen to a more deserving part of the country, and paying good teachers what they deserve has a better chance of success than do the bills before Congress.