The former CEO of IBM, Louis Gerstner, thinks he knows how to improve math and science education in this country: improve the quality of training and support for math and science teachers.
What’s the answer? Certainly improving our math curriculum is a big part of it. Continuing to raise standards is another. But the single biggest variable in improving math achievement is the one too many people keep glossing over: the quality of math instructors and the kind of training, support, and incentives for excellence we provide for those who choose the career.
Gerstner finds a great deal of urgency in a recent international assessment that put American students near the bottom in their understanding of math concepts. That’s the process of applying mathematics to problem solving – not what he refers to as a "narrow multiple-choice exam targeted to a specific set of skills". But part of his solution for improving the situation is going to piss off a whole lot of teacher union folks.
The heart of the problem is the arcane way we recruit and prepare teachers, along with the lockstep single salary schedule – which says a teacher equals a teacher equals a teacher, no matter how desperately society may need a certain skill set and no matter how well a teacher performs in the classroom. That’s senseless, yet it’s still the norm in the teaching profession.
Ok. I can get behind paying math teachers more money, but let’s take this concept a step farther. Don’t pay a math teacher more for just having the degree – pay them more for being successful. For that matter, offer the same kind of incentive to teachers who are able to get poor kids to read and write. Do the same for an art teacher who is successful with those same students. In the end, just knowing the subject is not enough. A teacher who can get kids to understand that subject is more than worth the cost.