Education Letter to the Editor

Better Math Teachers? Realign Incentive System

May 17, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

Computer-science professor emeritus Anthony Ralston makes a persuasive case that the “single greatest challenge facing American school mathematics” is what to do about “the steady decline over the past half-century of the intellectual abilities of those who teach math in our schools” (“The Real Scandal in American School Mathematics,” Commentary, April 27, 2005.)

This is a profound challenge, as well, for young Americans forced to compete in an increasingly global and Internet-linked labor market. Many may as well be wearing a sign: “Hire me. I’m expensive and I know little.”

Mr. Ralston’s solution—“supporting higher salaries and better working conditions for all teachers”—is, unfortunately, lame. Many teachers deserve much higher salaries, and most deserve better working conditions (many are under great stress). We certainly need more high-ability math teachers, but the current K-12 structure cannot deliver on those hopes.

The solution is to realign incentives, so that high ability, high output, and dedication are rewarded. The time-honored way to do that is to free consumers (families in this case) to direct their resources toward teams of teachers that best meet the educational needs of their children and to free teachers to run their schools as they choose, unconstrained by a regulatory straitjacket that is as misaligned as the incentive structure.

Tom Shuford

Lenoir, N.C.