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.