{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 8-6-09}

Last Sunday’s Gazette had a story about a center for math tutoring. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the owner. His business is a classic example of market success responding to government failure. All the same, I have to ask: In a country that spends billions of dollars on public education, why are math tutoring centers making money?

I care about this because I’m a computer science professor. I teach, in my humble opinion, at a world-class educational institution. So I see some of America’s best young minds as they come out of the K-12 education pipeline. And I have to say, I’m terribly frustrated at their math skills. Particularly after returning from a semester overseas.

When I taught in Russia, I had to change my lesson plans because my Russian students were better at math. They absorbed concepts more quickly, their abstraction skills were much stronger, and in general I could cover more material in more depth in less time than I could in the U.S. In fact, after the first couple of weeks, one of my students asked me if all American college classes went this slowly. Ouch!

For a variety of reasons, we are now stuck with a paradigm for math education that deemphasizes “skill and drill”, emphasizes collaboration at far too early an age, embraces calculators at far too early an age, and encourages students to discover the “best” mathematical techniques that “work for them”. This may make math more fun, but when it comes time to solve real math problems on real math tests, students pay the price.

There are also tremendous biases in public education toward math programs that are easier to teach, less likely to upset students, and that don’t require teachers to know much about mathematics. In fact, most math teachers, particularly at the middle school level, will have degrees in education, not math or science. That’s not surprising, since people with math and science degrees command higher salaries in the marketplace. That means schools would have to pay some people more than others if they want math and science teachers with math and science degrees. No teachers’ union will ever let that happen.

I have been fighting this battle for years. I’ve given presentations at school board meetings, I’ve signed petitions, and I’ve worked with parents who are fed up with the lousy math education their kids are getting in the public schools. That’s the one area where I’ve had some success. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve accomplished much beyond that. But I have learned some things.

I’ve learned that the only “solutions” the public education establishment will accept are ones that bring them more money and power. For example, hiring “math coaches” and paying more for “teacher training” are easy fixes that will be proposed to and endorsed by a typical school board.

I’ve learned that whatever your academic credentials might be, nobody in public education cares unless you’re an education “expert”. If you haven’t taught in a public school, then whatever you say is by definition wrong.

That’s why true math reform, if it is possible at all, has to come from within. We need young, maverick math teachers who know bad math programs when they see them to come out of the closet and tell it like it is. Trust me, nobody pays attention to a know-itall-professor.

Parents, if your child is having trouble mastering math skills, look for the warning signs of a “fuzzy math” program. These include heavy reliance on calculators, disregard of traditional mathematical techniques, and being encouraged to write about how math makes you feel. Go to math reform web sites like mathematicallycorrect.org and read their evaluations of math programs. There are some good ones out there, but most of them are truly awful.

Get organized. Push for a more traditional, reform-oriented math class, taught by a teacher with a technical background. School administrators hate this, but they’ll do it if enough parents make a stink.

Above all, get involved in math reform. Or just sit on the sidelines and let the kids from families who can afford tutoring escape bad math education. While you’re at it, you can watch American tech companies outsource to countries where science and math are valued enough to be taught correctly. That is not an equation for national prosperity.