More math and science teachers: A good start

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We applaud President George W. Bush’s suggestion to provide federal funding to hire 70,000 new math and science teachers across the country. We hope he’s successful, and we hope more similar federal initiatives succeed in the future. We also hope he and other leaders realize that more students in more math and science courses won’t, by itself, propel America into the leadership role he says he envisions.

We don’t think this plan will solve the shortage of high-techies in the work force; and we don’t think math and science are particularly under-emphasized in the school systems with which we’re familiar. However, public education in general is so pitifully underfunded that any reasonable effort to dedicate resources in that direction deserves support.

A quick look at the numbers: If the 70,000 new hires were divided evenly among the states, it would be 1,400 teachers for each state. That seems like a lot. Nationally, we have about 63.3 million people ages 5-19; so the plan would call for one new math or science teacher for every 875 school-age kids. That seems like not so much; probably about one teacher per school.

The newly-ignited Bunsen burners probably won’t set the world on fire. Any new teachers will, however, be welcome additions. We’ll let the feds know if they send too many.

A greater emphasis on math and science will likely help American workers get jobs in the high-tech companies of tomorrow. If, however, the President wants Americans to lead the world in technological development, those better-taught math and science students will need to learn more than math and science. They’ll need to learn how to apply that knowledge creatively. It can’t be taught from the math and science books because, by definition, this is tomorrow’s knowledge and it has yet to be created. If students of today are to become the leaders and creators of tomorrow, they must develop, from an early age, their own creative skills and knowledge. Whether society meant to or not, this was accomplished, for previous generations, through plentiful opportunities in, and great respect for, the arts in schools.

Is it a mere coincidence that after 30 to 40 years of cutting arts programs from school budgets, America finds itself lagging behind other nations in technological leadership? We think not. We think it makes perfect sense. We think it also makes perfect sense to reinstate and rebuild school arts programs, many of which have been cut beyond recognition in several sincere but misguided efforts to improve education in the “hard” subjects such as math, science and languages. Cutting the arts to emphasize “harder” subjects makes about as much sense as banning automobiles to save wear and tear on the roadways. It eliminates certain problems, but you still can’t get where you’re trying to go.

The President’s determination to have the federal government fund the new teaching positions is a welcome sign that he realizes a new push in math and science won’t be free. We hope that he and others who have a hand in funding education will also come to realize that simply pushing more students into more math and science courses will create a work force of staff engineers, staff researchers and staff technicians; who will do a competent job working for other people (probably from other countries) whose education required them to develop their creativity as well as their knowledge and technical skills. If that’s not the picture the President had in mind, we can offer a simple solution: Help school districts recover the money they once invested in visual arts, music, drama and other artistic endeavors; and help ensure that school programs are structured so that smart students don’t have to choose between pursuing the arts and taking the rigorous courses that will command attention from the top colleges and universities.

Bring on all the math and science teachers we can handle, and bring back the artistic opportunities that will help educators unleash the creative genius that threatens to lie dormant in too many of today’s brightest students.

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