math teacher
Jason Decrow  /  AP
Valerie Vu, in her first year as a ninth-grade math teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, said she had planned to become an actuary and didn't consider teaching until she heard about the Math for America program.
updated 1/31/2006 11:42:27 AM ET 2006-01-31T16:42:27

Business and science groups are reviving images of the Cold War space race in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spend millions to recruit and train high-caliber math teachers.

They argue that, just as a stronger focus on math helped the United States top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the country needs to improve math education to win an economic race with China and India and a national security race against terrorism.

Groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers' attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate U.S. math and science efforts.

"The interesting sort of difference in the dynamic then and the dynamic now is that we were competing with a military threat, whereas now it's much more an economic threat," said Susan Traiman, an education and work force policy lobbyist for the Business Roundtable.

It may be a hard sell in Washington.

Though it's unlikely anyone in Congress will say math isn't important, it may be tough to persuade lawmakers to devote new money to hiring and training teachers in a time of tight budgets. Some may feel there's no need politically or practically for a major education initiative just four years after President Bush's overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some proposals suggest using taxpayer money to boost pay for math teachers, an idea opposed by the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association. It wants higher salaries for all teachers, regardless of specialty. NEA also doesn't like the notion of paying teachers of particular subjects more than others.

"If you focus on working conditions that are good, salaries that are commensurate to one's ability in the field, one's professionalism, you would not have to worry about whether you had enough professionals coming into the field," NEA President Reg Weaver said.

The lobbying also looks to public opinion, and it can be difficult to inspire much passion for math even though Americans worry about jobs moving overseas, the number of college math majors is declining and student math scores lag behind those of many other countries.

The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, an epic event to Americans alive at the time but now known to many only from brief references in history class. The United States sent Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk in 1969, ancient history for students now debating whether to take a tough high school math class or pursue math careers.

Lobbyists acknowledge those challenges, and say they see reason for optimism.

A bipartisan group of senators recently proposed legislation offering incentives for math majors to pursue teaching careers, and Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday is expected to mention U.S. competitiveness. The National Academies, a group of science and technology experts, has joined those calling for substantial investments in math and science education.

Business lobbies — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and TechNet, a group of high-tech CEOs — are pressing for a national push on math. And some in business have already started pursuing math teacher improvement efforts on their own.

Raytheon, General Electric and IBM are among companies with programs aimed at making math cool: turning children on to math and improving math education.

Math for America offers scholarships, mentoring and pay bonuses to math whizzes who become teachers. The program was founded by Jim Simons, who earned a doctorate in math through a Pentagon program during the space race, worked as a math professor and went on to found a hedge fund and become a Wall Street billionaire.

Simons has hired a Washington lobbyist to urge the government to establish a program like his nationwide, and references to the Sputnik launch are also part of that lobbying effort. Simons vividly recalls the day Sputnik launched.

"Congress went bananas, said, 'Oh my God, the next thing, they'll have atomic bombs on the moon,'" Simons said. That prompted the government to invest in recruiting mathematicians and scientists and led to higher pay for math and science professors, he said.

Simons sees a shortage of people teaching math who really know math, and he thinks the solution is simple: Recruit people who know and love math, pay them enough to make teaching attractive, and they in turn will inspire more students to choose math careers.

Math for America is getting a tryout in New York City public schools. Participant Valerie Vu, in her first year as a ninth-grade math teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, said she had planned to become an actuary and didn't consider teaching until she heard about the program during her senior year at the University of Connecticut.

The stipend offered — $90,000 over five years on top of a teacher's regular salary — helps her get by in costly New York. Still, the job isn't easy. Many of Vu's students come from backgrounds where education isn't a top priority.

"So, as a teacher, that's my challenge, to instill some kind of motivation for them to want to learn, for them to want to go on," Vu said, "and I think that probably comes from them catching a glimmer of success in the classroom."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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