Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To bolster the country’s K-12 teacher corps, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promises “teacher service scholarships,” residency programs and “new and innovative ways to pay teachers” - a hedge for merit pay. Republican counterpart John McCain promises bonuses, new teacher certification methods and greater school choice. Both candidates, and both of their political parties at all levels, could stand a fresh proposal on mathematical literacy. By this, we’re sorry to say, we mean the literacy of teachers.

Today’s elementary education majors actually score below the math SAT average of the typical college-bound high-school senior - a serious problem if teaching math well first requires mathematical aptitude. This comes from a startling June report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which found that the average would-be elementary-ed major scored a 483 on the math portion of the SAT as compared with 515 for the average college-bound student. It gets worse. If our future teachers enter college worse at math than average students, the disparity actually widens slightly after these students complete their elementary-education major. Whereas the average college graduate touts a 543 math SAT score, these future teachers register only a 508.

Why this is occurring isn’t hard to understand. The National Council on Teacher Quality cites the “lack of competitiveness among teacher preparation programs” - an inoffensive way of saying that elementary education programs simply aren’t attracting the best and the brightest. This is a bigger problem than it may seem. School districts around the country increasingly require an education degree to teach, effectively blocking out many excellent potential teachers who, at age 18 or 19, choose majors other than education. The recourse of these would-be teachers is to pursue a graduate education degree, which is simply not possible for a great many, for financial reasons.

It should not merely be up to charters, private schools or parochial education to realize that smart people often study things other than elementary education. One answer is to break the education schools’ encroaching monopoly on teacher education, opening public schools to smart graduates of other disciplines - math, we would recommend, for one - once they undergo a basic certification and training process. To do so, one must take on the entire education and accrediting establishment.

Who could promote such an idea? We would hardly expect a Democratic nominee who counts teachers’ unions among key supporters to take that difficult route - though, in fairness, John McCain’s education platform does not go anywhere near that difficult route either. Both actually propose more accreditation and training - for this, read greater establishment influence. “Attacking teachers” is no label a presidential aspirant wants.

But the sad truth is that the below-average math scores of our future teachers portend badly for math education. The United States already scores below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average in the four mathematical categories the organization assesses. We need the presidential candidates to draw attention to this problem, and face up to the interests that block progress.

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