The Unspoken truth

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					The U.S. Math-Teaching Crisis: 'The Elephant in the Room'
By Anthony Rebora on March 7, 2010 12:50 PM | 13 Comments



Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference, New York

By far the most sobering session I attended at this conference was a conversation between PBS journalist David

Brancaccio and Jim Simons, the founder of a teacher-recruitment program called Math for America. Simons is

a mathematician who made a fortune as the CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a private investment firm. In

his retirement, he told Brancaccio, he has dedicated himself to wrestling with the "issue of why we do so poorly

as a nation in high school math."

Simons actually thinks the answer to that question is pretty straightforward: "We don't have enough teachers of

math and science who actually know math and science," he said bluntly. "It's the elephant in the room." He then

explained that at least part of the reason for this situation is that there are so many better professional

opportunities available to individuals who are highly skilled in math. There's an enormous "gap" in terms of

compensation and professional respect, he said, and as a nation we've done very little close that gap.

Math for America is intended to rectify that situation to at least some degree. The program, which receives both

federal and foundation funding, essentially aims to supplement the salaries of math-proficient individuals who

commit to go into teaching for four years--in addition to bankrolling them through a one-year intensive

certification program. (A separate "master teacher" track is available to standout existing teachers.) Simons

emphasized that MfA fellows are also given a range of professional development opportunities, including

lunches, seminars, and one-on-one support. This "comraderie," he suggested, creates a sense of professional

identity that teachers often lack. The program now has fellows in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego,

Washington, and Boston.

While he's clearly proud of the in-roads MfA has made, however, it was Simons' distress over America's

generally low proficiency in math that was most palpable. He believes we are reaching a crisis point in terms of

our economic future. "As this century unfolds," he said, "the economic competition from Asia is going to be very

intense, and we're going to have to face these issues. I'd like to see us face them before we lose the game."

He also expressed alarm and puzzlement at our seeming "cultural acceptance of poor math" (Brancaccio's

words). He wondered why it is, for example, that many elementary-level teachers can casually admit to not

liking or not being good in math. How would we react, he asked, if they said that about reading?

Ultimately, Simons said he would like to see MfA grow into a large-scale national program that supplies at least

20 percent of the nation's 350,000 math teachers. "You could completely transform math education," he said.

He estimated that it would cost roughly $2 billion a year to each that kind of scale, and he recalled mentioning

the idea recently to Sen. Harry Reid of Nev. On hearing the figure, he said Reid responded, "That's the cost of

one bomber."

				
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