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Mathematics Teaching and American Competitivenes

Mathematics Teaching and American Competitiveness

By Irwin Kra and W. Garner Robinson

Only rarely does the same issue affect both our economic well being and the very nature of our democracy. The United States is beginning to lose its competitive edge in science and technological innovation. After creating much of the Internet, we are now 16th globally in broadband deployment. In 2004 China exported $31 billion more in information technology than we did. The US graduated only 70,000 engineers last year, compared with almost one million from China and India. As a society, we have not lost our appetite and need for technological innovation, but we are simply not preparing enough of our young people for careers in these fields.

At the heart of the problem is the dwindling supply of well-prepared elementary school students ready to do high school work and consequently a dwindling supply of high school students prepared and inspired to go on to receive university training in science and mathematics. And that in turn is primarily due to the dwindling supply of public elementary and secondary school teachers who are knowledgeable in math and science.

Improving the teaching and learning of high school math and science is a key ingredient in reinvigorating American competitiveness. Without a major investment in recruiting excellent teachers, we will continue to lose ground compared to other nations. And once these excellent teachers enter the classroom, they must be well rewarded for their valuable contribution to our economy.

Teachers' salaries, unlike, for example, pay scales for mathematically competent financial analysts or professional baseball players, are not tied to market forces. Meaningful incentives, buttressed by comprehensive resources from the federal government, first to attract more qualified individuals into math and science teaching, and then to keep them there, seems the only practicable option.

In 2004, a group of mathematicians and investment bankers formed Math for America (MfA). In less than two years MfA has launched two privately funded New York City programs. The Newton Fellowship Program offers aspiring math teachers a stipend of $90,000 over a five year period as an incentive to enter the profession. The stipend is in addition to the regular salary while teaching. Newton Fellows also receive a full tuition scholarship to earn a master's in math education as well as mentoring and professional development opportunities. A second MfA initiative, the Newton Master Teacher Program, rewards excellent math teachers already in the field with $50,000 in stipends.

The success of MfA's pilot programs has generated a national initiative. On February 7, 2006, legislation based on MfA's Newton Programs was introduced in Congress. The Math Science Teaching Corps Act of 2006 (MSTC, pronounced "mystic") is bipartisan, bicameral legislation offered in the Senate by Charles Schumer (D-NY) and in the House by Jim Saxton (R-NJ).

The MSTC legislation creates a federal fellowship program to recruit, train, and retain outstanding math and science teachers. The proposed Corps will recruit excellent new teachers and reward gifted teachers already in the field, ensuring that they remain in the classroom. Content knowledge is a key to success for any teacher, and prospective Corps members will be screened through a rigorous admissions procedure that includes a national test endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences. The program's goal is to eventually involve 20% of our nation's secondary public school math and science teachers.

A program of the type envisioned will not be cheap. In a steady state, reached five years after the Corps is established, it will cost approximately $1.75 billion annually. It will also, however, reverse America's precipitous educational decline and prepare our students to succeed in the highly competitive economy of the 21st century.

Other proposals have been offered by leaders of both political parties. President Bush has recommended the creation of an Adjunct Teacher Corps to recruit tens of thousands of new teachers and also proposes to train current teachers for advanced placement courses in math and science. Similar legislation to upgrade the knowledge and skills of K-12 teachers has been introduced by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), as well as by Congressman Bart Gordon (R-TN), and by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

Of the many bills now before Congress, only MSTC provides a sufficiently broad fellowship program and stipends at a competitive level. MSTC does not waste taxpayers' money. It insists that Fellowships directly award only those who are great teachers and those who will become great teachers. The competition for Corps membership will be an open process based on sophisticated screening and a national content knowledge test in math and science. There can be no doubt that the key to better prepared students is better prepared teachers. Of the proposals under consideration, only MSTC requires sophisticated content knowledge testing.

It is not critical that Congress enact a program exactly like that proposed by the MSTC legislation. To be successful, a program to improve the teaching force must require appropriate content knowledge of teachers that is verified by a standard test and must provide appropriate financial incentives to those who have the option of choosing among career paths. Our economy requires a technically proficient workforce; our democracy demands a well educated electorate. We have no time to waste.

Irwin Kra is a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University and the Executive Director of Math for America. W. Garner Robinson is a Program Associate at Math for America. For information on applying for a Newton Fellowship as well as to find out how you can support MfA and MSTC, visit