Consider this word problem: If a nation already has shortages of math teachers, millions of existing teachers are on the verge of retirement, and the average graduate with a degree in math, engineering, or science can make $30,000 to $40,000 more per year going to work at Dell, 3M, or IBM than at his or her local public school, what will it take for our schools to attract the quality talent they need to educate the next generation? And if we fail to face the problem, how can we possibly prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers?
We'd better start to figure out the answer. Last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the latest results of its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey that measures the degree to which our students are prepared to meet the challenges of society.
How did our students do? The US tower of PISA isn't leaning; it's falling.
American 15-year-olds placed 24th out of 29 OECD countries in the 2003 survey, putting them behind their counterparts in Finland, South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada, as well as behind Hong Kong and Macao in China, and Liechtenstein among the 10 non-OECD participants. We're likely to get a second dose of sobering statistics Tuesday, when the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results, rating fourth- and eighth-graders, come out.
There are no excuses. The test on which the PISA results are based isn't a narrow multiple-choice exam targeted to a specific set of skills. It broadly measures basic mathematical concepts. As the Monitor reported Dec. 7, in one question - ranked Level 2 out of three proficiency levels - students were asked to figure out the number of dots on the bottom face of six dice, given the rule that the total number of dots on two opposite faces is always seven. About 6 out of 10 of our kids got it right.
And this isn't just a problem for specific student groups. While it's true that black and Hispanic students scored significantly below whites and Asian-Americans, US students fared poorly even when only top students in each country were compared.
Simply put, we are losing the skill war.
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.
That's why the Teaching Commission, the bipartisan advocacy group I founded, calls for providing smart financial incentives to attract the best and brightest students with majors in math, science, and related fields to enter teaching - and then to give them additional rewards for their success in raising student achievement.
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.
Fortunately, a few courageous policymakers are starting to challenge things. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, is fighting for higher pay for qualified teachers in high-need subjects - and has hinted he will work to offer still bigger bonuses to those who show real results in improving student achievement. Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat, also has made clear he wants to revamp the arcane way teachers are paid - and specifically, to attract more outstanding people to teach into hard-to-staff subjects such as math and science.
The defenders of the status quo are already massing at the barricades, so time will tell whether these governors and others can get these reforms put in place.
Fortunately, we don't have to wait for public policy to percolate through the process. Innovative nonprofits are beginning to pop up. UTeach, a University of Texas program, is giving undergraduates with math and science degrees intensive education training and placing 60 to 80 of them in public schools every year. Math for America, a young nonprofit, has just launched a program called the Newton Fellowship, which offers net bonuses of $100,000 - progressively more money each year over a five-year period - to draw people with strong math skills to teach in New York City's public schools.
We're not approaching a crisis; we're in it. About 15 percent of high school math teachers don't have a major or minor in mathematics. And according to a 2000 study of the largest urban school districts, nearly 95 percent reported an immediate demand for math teachers - a quantity problem on top of the quality problem we clearly already have.
Math skills are the gateway to the jobs of the future. And right now, millions of our kids are on the outside looking in. Are we as a nation paying attention?
• Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is the former chairman and CEO of IBM and founder of The Teaching Commission.