Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Problem with Math Teachers

I must confess -- I'm a bit of an economics junkie. So I've really been enjoying Alan Greenspan's memoir, The Age of Turbulence. In the first half he tells his story of working in high levels of government (and hanging out with Ayn Rand) over the last many decades. In the second half, he offers his take on various economic problems facing the world.

One of the big problems in America is that -- even as the economy has been going gangbusters the last 2-3 years -- an increasingly high percentage of Americans do not think it is going well for them. This is one of the results of a winner-take-all globalized economy. The return on high skill levels is much greater than it was in the past. People cannot simply earn a high school diploma, get a job in a factory, and expect to be middle class for life. Most good jobs require a college degree and, in fact, require a level of critical capacity that even many college graduates don't possess. You have to be able to solve new problems and adapt to new situations.

Many top jobs require a good grasp of math, in particular, and this is where Greenspan identifies a big problem that we have also talked about on this blog. The American education system is doing a lousy job training a broad base of students for careers that involve math. In past blog posts, we've looked at problems with the curriculum. But he identifies another economic problem: most districts reward teachers by seniority, not how much they are needed.

"A flat pay scale when demand is far from flat is a form of price fixing that undermines the ability to attract qualified math teachers," he writes. "Since the financial opportunities for experts in math or science outside of teaching are vast, and for English literature teachers outside of teaching, limited, math teachers are likely to be a cut below the average teaching professional at the same pay grade. Teaching math is likely being left to those who are unable to claim the more lucrative jobs."

Of course, economics is about generalities; many of us can point to excellent math teachers who had a strong desire to shape young minds -- or who didn't particularly like the private sector. But as Greenspan points out, even without the quality issue, there's still a quantity issue. A 2000 study of large urban districts found that 95% had an immediate demand for math teachers. Clearly, it is hard to get good people.

The simple economic solution is to pay math teachers (or any other teachers with high-demand credentials) more. In reality, this has been beastly hard to do. The culture of teaching -- to say nothing of union contracts -- often undermine this. But I recently came across a program in NYC and a few other cities called Math for America that pays promising math teachers (defined pretty much as math majors who did not major in education; the program pays for a master's degree in teaching) an additional almost $20,000 per year above the salaries they would earn as regular teachers. The America Competes Act has a provision modeled on this program that will establish National Science Foundation fellows around the country and boost their pay.

I am looking more into these programs because I think it's a fascinating idea. Money isn't everything. I chose to go into journalism rather than a math-related field for reasons that have nothing to do with salaries. But, on the whole, a bright young person who is interested in teaching might choose to specialize in math if the pay was better. Over time, that would help solve the quantity problem, if nothing else.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Brainy Baby Backlash Continues...

I was watching Oprah on the treadmill the other day when I saw an advertisement for Hooked on Phonics. In it, a 4-year-old boy was reading out loud to his mom in front of a gaggle of other amazed moms. "How old is he?" they wanted to know. They also wanted to know the first mom's secret. She said -- with some rather forced humility -- that they'd been practicing. Flash to an ad for the Pre-K Hooked on Phonics system.

The whole thing seemed a wee bit distasteful to me. Not the part about a 4-year-old reading. I know that many highly gifted young people start reading long before kindergarten because they view reading as a way to learn more about the world. Since they want to learn more about the world, they learn to read. But this is often to their parents' amazement. There is very little "practicing" going on. The ad plays into the oft-repeated dismissal that parents of these highly gifted young people are just pushing them into reading in order to impress the other moms at playgroup. If 4 years old is good, why not even earlier? Fortunately for those looking to put other parents to shame, Hooked on Phonics has a baby edition that is aimed at 3-18 months.

But also, I found the ad disturbing because I just finished reading Susan Gregory Thomas' Buy Buy Baby. This book documents how various marketers have aimed their products at increasingly young children in order to build brand loyalty, and have gotten away with it by claiming the products are educational. Her particular bugaboo (the name of a $800 stroller, by the way) is the Baby Einstein series, but as she told me when I interviewed her for an upcoming USA Today column, there's really no escaping it. Elmo's face is on diapers. One of her daughter's first words was Dora, and she hadn't seen the show. My son Jasper loves his "How Big is Baby Elmo? Baby Elmo is SO Big" board book, and he doesn't watch Sesame Street. It was simply a pleasant looking book available at Babies R Us, but now he'll have an affinity to the red furry monster -- and no doubt the lunch boxes, toys, and sleeping bags he adorns -- for the rest of his childhood. Sigh.

The humorous thing about all these products is that they must be pitched as educational in order for families to feel it's OK to buy them. Every marketer knows this. Jasper has a musical animal train toy that plays incredibly annoying songs. But they all talk about "learning about animals." It's not enough to say that giraffes are tall, or to play Old McDonald Had a Farm, or what have you. The little singing voice keeps chirping that "learning about animals is so much fun!" Gregory Thomas tells a funny story about a doll for toddlers that had the names of body parts stitched onto the appropriate places. Toy stores refused to stock it because it wasn't "educational." So it was redesigned with numbers and letters stitched on instead. Now it was deemed OK, even though the new design made absolutely no sense.

It's unclear why parents are so concerned that toys for young kids be educational. Kids learn through play, period. They certainly don't learn more watching a Baby Einstein video than they do when you talk to them while folding laundry. Gregory Thomas blames a White House 0-3 conference in 1997 which claimed that those years were absolutely critical to brain development, as well as parental worries about whether kids will do OK in our winner-take-all culture.

The Hooked on Phonics Pre-K programs play into these worries. So do the various LeapFrog game systems which give very young kids even more screen time (unlikely to help little brains, regardless).

But there is definitely a backlash brewing. Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos took a big hit recently when some researchers discovered that kids who watch the videos know fewer words than those who don't. And TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), has been featured on many blogs for its 2007-2008 Toy Action Guide which actually has the gumption to call LeapFrog's Click Start My First Computer a toy to avoid. Well!

Certainly there's no harm in pre-K kids learning their letters and numbers. But it is funny that we've become so obsessed about it, as if there is not a minute to lose in those critical early years. After all, the other little 4-year-olds are reading. All Johnny needs is a $99.95 toy, and he will be too...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Girls Sweep Seimens Competition

This year, young women won both the individual and team divisions in the annual Siemens Competition. This prestigious high school science competition awards scholarships to young people who undertake compelling research. Isha Himani Jain of Bethlahem, PA, won the individual grand prize for her research on bone growth. Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff of Plainview, NY, won the team competition for their research on tuberculosis. You can read more about the competition here.

It's always good to read about young people doing amazing things in science, period. But I found the news about the female sweep of the top awards particularly heartening, given the ongoing controversy about women's achievements in science.

A few years ago, former Harvard President Larry Summers made headlines with his statement that women were unlikely to be proportionally represented in the "most prestigious jobs" in math and science in the near future for three key reasons. First, Summers claimed that all prestigious jobs require complete devotion during one's younger years, and until women are willing to put in the hours (to the exclusion of all else) they won't gain tenure at the same rates, publish at the same rates, etc. Second, women may not be as well represented on the extremes of mathematical intelligence. This doesn't mean any one given woman is worse at math than any given man. But perhaps on the margins there's a difference which then results in low representation at the top universities. And finally, there may be discrimination. But he made very clear that he thought the first two were bigger factors than the latter.

There is definitely a problem in academia and elsewhere with the perception that getting anywhere in math and science requires devoting oneself, monk-like, to the lab. Many corporations are plagued by this same idea that people who have outside interests aren't "serious." Both men and women have outside interests. But women are more likely to put a premium on having balanced lives. Larry Summers seemed to think this inevitably meant women wouldn't be well-represented at the top. Personally, I think the institutions will change. After all, we have a female Speaker of the House who started her political career after her kids grew up. But anyway...

What the Siemens competition results are doing is putting the nail in the coffin on Summers' second point. When young men and women are given equal opportunities, and are equally encouraged to excel in scientific pursuits, young women are just as likely to achieve great results.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Another Gifted Blog

I'm excited to share the news about a new blog on raising gifted children with readers of Gifted Exchange. Kim Moldofsky, a longtime Gifted Exchange reader, has recently started contributing to BabyCenter (one of the biggest parenting websites out there). You can read some of her posts here. She writes about asynchronous development, over-excitabilities, laundry, etc. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior

A few newspapers run education Q&A columns, often written by educators, parents and the like. I came across this interesting one from InsideBayArea. A little girl, who is ahead of the rest of her class in various subjects, is humming, daydreaming, etc., as the teacher goes through her lessons. What should be done?

It's a good question. One of the big myths about gifted children is that they are well-behaved teachers' pets. Many get bored in class, and while some bored children just get quiet, others act out or call attention to the fact that they find class boring. Some whose social skills are less well developed may ask obnoxious questions, call the teacher or other students "dumb" and otherwise make general pains of themselves. It's hard to imagine anything more annoying than a kid who persists in humming while other children are trying to work.

Yes, gifted kids need to be given tougher work that challenges them. But bad behavior can't be tolerated, even if there is a reason for it. I'm curious how parents who read this blog have dealt with discipline challenges.