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California is about to mandate that all eighth grade students must pass an algebra test. The policy-makers seem to have admirable goals. But they are focusing on diagnosis, not cure. We already know what the problem is. It's time to fix it. The Challenge
The global economy demands mastery of technical subjects. Research repeatedly reveals that American students stumble in math and science in middle school and fall down badly in high school. The gatekeeper course is algebra.
There is nothing wrong with adding a test to the curriculum. There is something wrong with only adding a test.
While the politicians pontificate, California's students struggle to learn mathematics against staggering odds.
Suppose that to confront the childhood obesity epidemic, the state of California mandated that every high school graduate had to compete competitively in all decathlon events, including the pole vault. But suppose no additional coaches were hired and there was no additional training of current coaches.
Fortunately, bold and innovative leaders, including leaders from the private sector, are trying to bring fundamental change to the mathematics education infrastructure. Two new programs hold great promise. Math for America
Math for America
One person can make a difference. Billionaire Jim Simons, a successful investor and a mathematics professor, was concerned about the weak math and science skills of American students. He decided to do something about it. With seed money he contributed, (about 50 million dollars!), and additional funding by others, Simons launched Math for America with a pilot program in New York City. This program recruits outstanding college graduates who have studied advanced mathematics and fully pays for their graduate education as teachers. Furthermore, Math for America gives them a substantial salary bonus for six years once they start teaching.
The New York fellows had taken an average of 18 math courses in college! Math for America now is expanding geographically. I serve on the steering committee for a collaborative effort by three institutions in the Los Angeles area: the Claremont Graduate University, Harvey Mudd College, and the University of Southern California. This year we launched the program with a cohort of twelve impressive future teachers. Half will attend USC and half will attend CGU.
These twelve young people are American heroes. NSF Noyce Scholarships
NSF Noyce Scholarships
The National Science Foundation is drawing outstanding college graduates in math and science across the country into teaching through the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program. NSF Noyce Scholarship support contributes $10,000 to their studies for a teaching credential and a master's degree in return for a commitment to teach for at least two years in a high need school district. The program also supports undergraduates who are majoring in mathematics or a science discipline and preparing to become teachers.
An Inspiring Role Model
At a recent reception, the Math for America fellows were introduced by Pam Mason, the Executive Director of the LA program, who said:
"I wanted to be a teacher since the age of 5. There was no way of talking me out of it. At the time I graduated from college I was offered $25000 a year to work at Rocketdyne or Hughes and I turned it down for $7000 a year to teach. I loved every day of teaching for the last 35 years and can't imagine doing anything else. I still remember the excitement I felt my first year of teaching. I felt that same excitement today in working with our new fellows."
We need more teachers like Pam, not more tests.
David E. Drew (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds the Platt Chair at the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.