Send in the math homework relief

Toward the end of his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush made a statement that caught my attention in a big way. "Tonight," Mr. Bush declared, "I propose 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, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs."

Is there any chance of this idea being enacted into law? If so, I would like to propose a supplemental bill called the Parent Homework Relief Act, which would fund a corps of math experts who would make home visits at any time of day or night to help people like me wrestle through the nuances of logarithms, histograms, box plots, and all the other mind-blowing topics that encompass an 11th-grade algebra survey.

I know the odds of such a bill being passed are small, perhaps on the order of 10 to the negative 25th power (exponents are one of my strong areas), so for now my only option is to keep grinding along and hope I never encounter bizarre new graphs and functions that have been discovered since I graduated from high school.

On a serious note, I am unpersuaded by any attempt to link a particular field of study or level of expertise with the nebulous term, "good, high-wage jobs." This platitude has the same effect on me as the sound of fingernails scratching down a chalkboard.

What is a high wage, anyway? For the sake of argument, let's say $75,000 per year. But there's more to this question than just a dollar amount. Much depends on where the recipient lives. A 75K salary in Nashua, N.H., would provide a different level of amenities than it would in San Francisco. In math terms, location is an X-factor, also known as "the variable."

I could also make a strong case that writing and verbal communication are the most important skills required for landing a good job, because it's very difficult to get hired these days if you can't fill out an application properly or answer questions coherently during the interview.

It's entirely possible my daughter will be hearing these same themes debated in the media when she has children of her own. Science and math education have been hot topics since Sputnik was launched in 1957.

For me, an aging boomer in suburbia, the jobs-for-our-kids issue must have some connection to infrastructure. I know the US has to maintain a strong economic base to stay ahead of the global competition, but I also worry about who's going to fix the overhead wires in my neighborhood if there's a devastating ice storm in 2017. Are any eighth graders right now thinking, "Gee, wouldn't it be cool to grow up and work for the sewer department someday?"

It's an equation with a whole lot of variables. Too bad we can't just look in the back of the book for the right answer.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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