Why Johnny Can't Do Algebra

Sept. 25, 2009
The algebra teacher I had in high school left a lot to be desired.

The algebra teacher I had in high school left a lot to be desired. He struggled to explain basic concepts in class, and those of us stuck with him as an instructor always had the impression he was just one chapter ahead of us in the algebra book. He was a nice guy, but he had no business teaching math.

I suspect most MACHINE DESIGN readers can recall similar experiences with less-than-competent teachers. This is good to keep in mind as you review the results of the Trends in International Math and Science Study. TIMSS is a measure of how U.S. students stack up in math and science proficiency against their counterparts in other countries.

Generally speaking, U.S. students just don’t look good on these evaluations. Eighth graders, for example, score well behind kids in Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, Hong Kong, and 11 other countries. And the poor scoring is nothing new. As far back as the 1960s, the U.S. has done poorly compared with other developed nations. Although U.S. test scores have improved a bit over the years, those of other advanced nations have improved more.

The hand-wringing over U.S. academic performance has gone on for decades. In 1983, a “widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system” gave rise to a widely noted report called A Nation at Risk, The Imperative for Educational Reform. Produced by a presidential commission, it called for a wide range of educational reforms.

One of those reforms was to pay teachers for performance and to devise a mechanism that would weed out incompetents. But the Wikipedia page on Nation at Risk notes that “stunningly few” of its recommendations were ever implemented. For an idea why, consider the comments of Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and John Chubb, founder of EdisonLearning Inc. They blame the lack of reform on teachers’ unions that are “extraordinarily powerful.” They quote a study of state-level politics that found teachers’ unions to be the single-most-powerful interest group in the entire country throughout the 1990s. This lets unions block reforms, like pay for performance and the firing of incompetents, which are not in the interest of their members.

Moe and Chubb also point out that a simple way to boost teacher quality would be to test veteran teachers for competence in the subjects they teach. This almost certainly would have exposed the shortcomings of my algebra teacher. But unions have opposed these sorts of tests. They claim that all teachers with formal certification are competent to teach.

Well, my algebra teacher was certified, as were all the teachers in my school system even back then. At least to me, the suggestion that certification is a proxy for competence is nonsensical.

It is ironic that the United Auto Workers union has taken so much heat for contributing to the economic woes of U.S. manufacturing. One might argue teachers’ unions should get a bigger part of the blame simply because they’ve put their members’ interests ahead of enhancing the nation’s cognitive skills. And there is a direct connection between cognitive skills and economic growth. Moe and Chubb put it this way: Had the U.S. spent the last decade boosting its educational performance to that of international educational leaders, its gross domestic product by 2015 would be 4.5% higher than otherwise. That’s something to remember as you read the latest unemployment figures.

—Leland Teschler, Editor

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