Reviving Sputnik (or making math matter)
Every once in a while, there's a new wave of stories about how Americans are losing our edge in math and science. These articles usually talk about what happened in the wake of Sputnik. Suddenly, the story goes, Congress found money for training young mathematicians and giving young academics grants and the like. And we did wind up beating the Soviets to the moon. Maybe, the stories say, we should do the same now.
We're in the midst of another wave of such stories at the moment. President Bush is expected to talk about our competitiveness in these fields tonight in his State of the Union address. The Business Roundtable and US Chamber of Commerce are also lobbying on the matter. One proposal floating around is to pay math teachers more than other teachers, though this is vigorously opposed by the NEA. You can read about the push in an Associated Press article here.
Paying math teachers more is one solution. I'm a little wary of various proposals to "make math fun." These are noble in intent, but occasionally make math fun by watering it down. Don't get me wrong -- I hated doing worksheets of 90 single digit multiplication problems. But I recall reading an essay in O magazine last year about a young woman who hated math growing up, and then wrote that she was thrilled to see that some young people in her neighborhood now had a math program where they talked a lot about math, worked in groups and shied from the pure quant problems. Maybe that's an improvement, but I'm not sure. Some kids do like numbers without the fuzzy stuff.
I realize math is collaborative -- but I'd like to see collaboration follow after kids learn the basics individually. Here's my idea for improving America's math competitiveness. All classrooms could have a computer program (and enough screens) where kids work through math lesson plans and problems. If you get enough right, you move forward in the computer program. If you seem unsure about a concept, you or the machine summon your teacher. The teacher helps, and the computer program has tutorials as well. You move on when you master something. There are programs that approximate this now.
But the key part is that there should be no "end" of the program to correspond with the school year. If you master arithmetic, you move on to pre-algebra concepts. Master those, you move on to algebra, trigonometry, calculus, etc. One sixth grader could be stretching herself learning calculus while her classmate next to her is brushing up on her arithmetic. Both will be learning to the extent of their abilities. This is doable in a field like math (at least up through the calculus level or so) in a way it isn't in English or history. I bet you'd see a lot of kids learning a lot more than they do now. And gifted kids would be challenged. Maybe one of the tech companies pushing Congress to do something about math education could produce such a system.