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Duncan, Among the Math Teachers

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Arne Duncan spoke before the nation’s largest gathering of math teachers this weekend in Washington, D.C. While I wouldn’t say there were any dramatic departures from his earlier scripts, the secretary made a few points worth noting, particularly when it comes to trying to get more math teachers into the classroom, and persuading them to stay.

The secretary, addressing the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on Saturday, no doubt made some new friends when he spoke highly of differential pay—basically, paying math teachers more than teachers of other subjects, as a way to lure them into the field. (Duncan made the same pitch before the National Science Teachers Association recently).

Advocates for math and science say teachers in those fields are too easily drawn out of the classroom by the promise of higher pay elsewhere. Unions sometimes oppose those measures, saying they’re unfair and lead to discord in schools.

“We have to respond to the market, and the market is telling us we have a critical need,” Duncan told the audience, which appeared to number a couple thousand. They responded enthusiastically, as you might have guessed.

Duncan also touted alternative certification as a promising route to get educators-in-waiting into schools. Early in his speech, he talked about the federal stimulus plan’s ability to stave off a “tidal wave” of job losses, and keep teachers who might otherwise be out on the street, in the classroom. Alternative certification could appeal to those career-changers, he said. “Folks are losing jobs in other fields,” he said, adding: “Why do we lock them out of education?”

While we're on the topic, I'd like to know if anyone has seen any data that shows whether differential pay plans lead to teachers sticking with the profession, or, for that matter, to student improvement. Some people have questioned the effectiveness of monetary incentives, such as grants and scholarships, to lure and keep math and science teachers in the classroom. (And see my colleague, Debbie Viadero's recent story about Richard Ingersoll's research, which suggests that universities are producing sufficient numbers of math and science teachers, but that schools are not doing enough to retain them.)

As he has in other settings, Duncan said the stimulus spending—about $115 billion in all on education—creates an opportunity for federal, state, and local policymakers to support innovations in schools. He called for local school officials, teachers included, to act as watchdogs, and suggested that if the “unprecedented” amount of K-12 money isn’t wisely spent—“if we don’t create, and if we don’t innovate”—the public is less likely to support big school investments in the future.

While stimulus and workforce issues got a lot of attention, the secretary didn’t touch at all on curriculum issues. It’ll be curious to see to what extent federal stimulus spending supports experimentation in math teaching, and what shape those efforts will take.

And how active will the Obama administration be in promoting the work of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, the expert federal group convened by the Bush White House? That panel produced a series of recommendations last year for improving early grades math instruction. In the Bush administration’s waning days in office, Margaret Spellings’ department actively promoted the panel’s findings to parents and the public. Will Duncan do the same?

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Duncan is another proponent of corporatizing schools. People are not products and as we have seen recently, products can become quickly irrelevant and undesirable. I fear for education in the hands of Spellings and now Duncan. The fact that education has literally been taken out of the hands of educators and into the hands of people who care less about how people learn and want them to serve the market scares me. It is very similar to Obama's statement that Scientists should serve the state. The lack of true diversity in thought and purpose and the assumption people should be rallied to these causes frightens me.

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