Let’s Teach Math to the Talented Online

By 11/10/2010

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Thirty countries do better than the United States at teaching math to the talented, my colleagues and I reported this week.  Six percent of American students, but over 20 percent of the students in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland perform at the advanced level.  More than twice as high a percentage of Canadians, Japanese, Czechs, New Zealanders, Dutch Swiss and Belgian students are achieving at that high level than the students in the United States.

So given the shortage of high performing math students, it comes as no surprise to learn that Google is giving all employees a 10 percent salary increase across the board, because it is worried its mathematically talented employees will abscond to high paying competitors. A math skilled American is becoming such an endangered species that employers have become as assiduous at keeping them as the National Park Service is at rescuing wolves.

What can we do about it?  The other breaking news story—Joel Klein’s departure as chancellor of the New York City school system to take a job in digital learning—gives us a clue.  Let’s create outstanding courses online, led by the country’s best algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus teachers, and backed up by sophisticated ancillary material. Schools could then access these materials and redeploy their (less qualified) teachers as classroom coaches that support the online instruction.  Each student can learn at the level and pace appropriate to their situation.

Trying to improve the desperate situation school by school by encouraging talented mathematicians to go into the teaching profession will take too long and cost too much.

Bill Gates said the best college courses will be offered online within 5 years.  If that is so, then there is no reason the best middle school and high school math courses cannot also be offered online. I hope Joel Klein—or one of his competitors–finds a way to get this done.

If you don’t think the online solution will work, you must have a better idea. I’d like to know what it is.

–Paul E. Peterson

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