In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush stressed the importance of improving math education. He proposed to “train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math.”
But where will these teachers come from? And will the training of teachers be sufficient to increase the number of students choosing math and science careers? And why does all this matter?
Because mathematics is the foundation of the natural sciences. It is no coincidence that Isaac Newton, the man who formulated the law of gravitational attraction that revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was also the man who popularized the calculus. And the natural sciences, however pure, are what give us airplanes, cable TV and the Internet.
In the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, a test that measures math literacy, American 15-year-olds performed worse than their peers in 23 countries, as well as those in Hong Kong. It’s not hard to see why. According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 40 percent of the nation’s middle school math teachers do not have the equivalent of an undergraduate minor in math. The average starting salary of a teacher is only $30,000, whereas the average starting salary for a recent college graduate in computer science or engineering is $50,000.
Jonathan Farley is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and a CISAC science fellow.