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.


Rational Jenn said...

I think you're absolutely right about pay being based (in part) on the value of the skills being taught. In graduate business school, we talked about this. The professors who taught MBA classes were being paid much more than undergrad professors or even grad professors in other schools like Liberal Arts. There was (is) a high demand for business degrees and my university's pay structure for the profs reflected that market reality. The science and math professors made even more than the business professors. The English professors were mad.

I was an English major as an undergrad, so of course I see the value in a Liberal Arts education. But I know for a fact that this value doesn't always translate into dollars in the job world! :o)

I think it's right and fitting that any teachers of any kind of school, not just college, be paid according to their skill level, competency, and demand of the market. However, until the school system is actually subject to real market pressures, that is, completely removed from the high degree of government control and influence, I can't see this happening outside of universities.

Anonymous said...

I will vote for (almost) any candidate at the local, state or national level who is brave enough to propose real public school reform including setting national educational standard, which I can’t even imagine is controversial given our global economy, offering parents, who understand their children’s educational needs best, school choice vouchers and paying teachers based on merit and recruitment needs rather than solely for longevity.

I believe the Democratic Party has put themselves at a disadvantage for the support from parents of school aged children by aligning themselves so closely with the public school teachers unions and rejecting any possible and needed solutions that go against the union agenda. If you critique the public school system, you are considered unDemocratic!

Anonymous said...

By the time kids have left elementary school so many of them already hate math because so many elementary school teachers don't like it. We need to start by doing something to improve elementary school math education first.

hw said...

Maybe -- but

a) I am not sure that there are all that many jobs for all that many mathematicians out there; there are a lot of jobs that require some skills in written English.

b) there is evidence about this available, we don't have to speculate -- how smart are prospective math teachers compared to prospective English teachers. What sort of pay is available in private schools for math teachers cf. other kinds of teachers?

c) do you have to be very good at math to teach elementary school math? I think you have to be a reasonably good speaker of English to model it day in and day out, but elementary school and even upper grade math teachers don't really need to understand extremely advanced math, do they?

d) all kinds of teachers definitely need to know how kids learn and how to convey the information and the required thought patterns. Of course, it isn't clear to what degree anyone knows this in substance, OR how to convey it to a prospective teacher.

Anonymous said...

c) do you have to be very good at math to teach elementary school math? I think you have to be a reasonably good speaker of English to model it day in and day out, but elementary school and even upper grade math teachers don't really need to understand extremely advanced math, do they?

YES, They should!

This is the problem that my DYS has faced since second grade! He would get slammed for asking "above grade level" questions which were really just too "advanced" for the teachers. Let's get some subject matter experts in to teach our nation's bright children whose potential goes vastly under-utilized!

Anonymous said...

I read the need and urgency of maths teachers in the USA.I am an Indian female teacher teaching maths in Highschool for the past 14 years in India.I would love to teach maths in the USA.My sister is working in the USA.Anyone has any idea?pls email

Anonymous said...

What are some of the problems that math teachers have in salary?

Brennan said...

What are some of the problems??? Let's see... I graduated top of my class with a BS in Math two years ago. At that point I could have taken a job as an entry level actuary making 45-55K per year. Two years later, with my M.Ed. in hand, I am looking at making 35K per year as a high school math teacher. This is why most math majors don't even think about teaching, especially when considering that in any other profession higher demand leads to higher pay.

Anonymous said...

Confessions Of A Credentialed Math Teacher: Most responses to "The Problem with Math Teachers" were right on target. The methodology I use in coping with the disrespect/indifference shown fully credentialed instructors, who by the way spend on average an additional two years in a conventional program to demonstrate subject matter proficiency in a very rigorous and demanding course schedule, is to selectively teach/tutor with schools that maintain a 'red carpet' with my name on it. In addition I single out students who show respect and dedication towards a subject I am passionate about.

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