To the Editor:
Anthony Ralston provides a compelling argument that (“The Real Scandal in American School Mathematics,” April 27, 2005.) is “the quality of the nation’s cadre of K-12 mathematics teachers.” As he says, “The surprising fact is not that the United States has far fewer mathematically competent teachers than it needs, but that it has as many competent ones as it does.”
Several ways to begin to address the situation, other than those he suggested, occur to me.
If professors of mathematics in our leading universities would stop denigrating teaching, and would stop trying to get excellent mathematics students who have chosen teaching as a career to give up that dream and instead become research mathematicians, many additional mathematically competent people would become and remain teachers of mathematics.
If industry would stop offering higher salaries and better working conditions than what schools do to the mathematically competent, we might attract and retain more excellent teachers of mathematics. This, of course, is an unrealistic expectation for business, so the solution is to improve salaries and working conditions in the schools.
In 1982, when I was the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, I proposed raising standards for all teaching fields to a level that would assure competence in content and pedagogy. Then if there were a shortage of qualified teachers in a specific field, an increment proportional to the magnitude of the shortage would be paid to qualified teachers of the subject. In 1982, this would have meant a substantial increment for teachers of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and special education.
The same is probably true today. If the federal government would put the money it promised (but has not delivered) for the No Child Left Behind Act into financing such increments, the quality and quantity of teachers in several fields would be enhanced.
Education administrators should be allowed and expected to spend more time and resources supporting quality education through improved discipline and support for teachers’ in-service education (attending professional meetings, having scheduled times and places for teachers of given subjects to meet to hone their skills and discuss difficulties with individual students, and so forth) and less time on public relations, censoring student thought, administering the latest directive from politicians, and other activities not related to academics. Such a change would make teaching any subject more attractive.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in 2001, Professor Frederick Stevenson of the University of Arizona’s department of mathematics created a Center of Recruitment and Retention of Teachers that has been astoundingly successful in its short life. The number of new teachers of mathematics being produced by the university has more than quadrupled in that time, and many local teachers have said that the opportunities provided by the center have made them feel more like respected professionals and more inclined to remain in teaching.
Twenty-seven of the 31 center-associated teachers who have been teaching at least three years are still teaching. That is a retention rate of 87 percent. The national average for math teachers’ staying in the field at least three years is 66 percent. More information is available on from the University of Arizona’s Center for Recruitment and Retention of Mathematics Teachers.
Stephen S. Willoughby
New York University
University of Arizona