It was the threat of the Soviets leapfrogging us with their launch of Sputnik that spurred America to refocus on creating a generation of the best mathematicians and scientists. And Houston, we have a problem. The nation that put the first footprints on the moon in 1969 and built amazing vehicles that transport humans to orbit the earth—the Space Shuttle—is losing an important race in American education.
For a variety of reasons we have lost that focus on math and science. But it appears we are longing to get it back. Pres. Obama had dinner in Woodside last week with a collection of gifted mathematicians and scientists who have all parlayed their acumen to become some of the most powerful people on the planet. There is no doubt individuals who are mathematically and scientifically at the top of their peer group have an outstanding opportunity to become highly compensated—with or without a college degree in the case of a few.
This week, speaking from Portland, Ore., Obama said: “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education beyond high school, many requiring proficiency in math and science. And yet today we’ve fallen behind in math, science, and graduation rates. As a result, companies like Intel struggle to hire American workers with the skills that fit their needs.
“If we want to win the global competition for new jobs and industries, we’ve got to win the global competition to educate our people. We’ve got to have the best-trained, best skilled workforce in the world. That’s how we’ll ensure that the next Intel, the next Google, or the next Microsoft is created in America, and hires American workers.”
The president says he has made education a top priority and I believe he has. Yet I also believe Race to the Top is not the answer for becoming number one again in math and science education. Nor can we continue to nation-build in Afghanistan at the expense America’s children and our future prosperity.
With the best of intentions in California we have courageously tried to increase the number of 8th grade students taking Algebra 1 but the results are mixed at best. The good thing is we have raised expectations for all. A just-released EdSource study shows that those 8th graders not performing well in Algebra have a weaker foundation in math concepts. Building on a strong math foundation in the early grades in an essential part of the equation.
In a few months the 5th Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) will be administered globally in over 40 countries for 4th and 8th grade students. The first administration of the comparative assessment was done in 1995 and every four years thereafter. Only 6 percent of the United States 8th graders reached the TIMSS advanced International benchmark in mathematics in 2007 compared with 45 percent of 8th graders for Chinese Taipei, 40 percent for Republic of Korea and Singapore, 31 percent for Hong Kong SAR, 26 percent for Japan, 10 percent for Hungary, 8 percent for England and the Russian Federation. The content domains assessed on the 8th grade TIMSS for math are Number, Algebra, Geometry, Data and Chance. The cognitive domains assessed are Knowing, Applying, and Reasoning.
My fear as an educator who cares deeply about math preparedness for all students is that the U.S. scores in 2011 will take us to new low levels compared with our international cohorts. I hope this is not true, but it is my prediction based on less time spent on math and science since 2007 due to budget cuts, reduction of school days, hours etc.
My recommendations include:
• Promote national standards in mathematics.
• More grouping by skill level in math, making certain we continue to challenge the most gifted thinkers in math and science. While at the same time ensuring that all students are strongly prepared in foundational arithmetic skills, even if we require a longer school day for some. Use technology and computers to help teach basic skills.
• We must assure that all teachers, including all elementary teachers have skills that are highly proficient to teach math and science.
• Use the best research to improve teacher education, training and professional development in math and science instruction.
• Give the weakest math students the best math teachers.
• Raise the salaries for math and science teachers, especially in middle schools.
• Increase salaries for those math and science teachers that teach in high poverty districts/schools.
• Develop a new math and science credential for teachers who teach math and science in the elementary schools.
• Keep students with same math and science teacher for multiple years.