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The U.S. Math-Teaching Crisis: 'The Elephant in the Room'

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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