Why Johnny can’t add

I met a senior administrator from a big public school system the other day.  She was attending a conference on recruiting math and science teachers.  Why only math and science, I asked?  She explained that school teacher salaries are set by unions and governments so that teachers of all subjects get paid the same.  The current salary is much more than necessary to attract qualified social studies teachers.  At current salaries, she could find qualified replacements for all of the non-math/science teachers in her school system within a week or two.  People who understand math and science, however, find the current package of salary and working conditions unattractive and find work elsewhere, leaving America’s children to be taught math by the substantially innumerate.

Maybe we have a simple explanation for why Johnny can’t add.

(But we still need one for why he can’t read…)


  1. John Armstrong

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:03 pm


    “Maybe”? In academic math circles we’ve known and spoken about exactly this problem for years.

    I know your stance on people going into academics, but compare even that to public school teaching.

    The path to tenure (for those districts that offer it) is shorter at a university. Job security is something nobody my age (late ’20s) expects outside of academics.
    The pay is usually comparable in a given region. Sure I’m making less next year than a teacher in Greenwich, CT, but I’m only paying to live in Bowling Green, KY
    The hours are far shorter. It’s extremely heavy for me to teach four courses in a given semester, which translates to 20 hours a week of having to be in one particular place at one particular time. Beyond that I can do most of my research in my own head, on my own terms, where and when I choose.

    So why would I take my ivy league Ph.D. down the road to teach a bunch of kids who don’t even want to be there, and who I can’t tell to just leave (and squander daddy’s money).

    Now, add to this the fact that you can get your foot in the door at an engineering firm with just a bachelor’s in math, work on a decent master’s on the company’s dime, and get paid far more without all the extra headache of getting a doctorate… Why would anyone majoring in mathematics go to public school?

    Oh, unless you’re talking about the people who major in a math-ed program, which is usually run through the department of education instead of mathematics, and which usually doesn’t require nearly the same level of work as a straight math major.

  2. philg

    July 23, 2008 @ 11:05 am


    John: Are you sure about the path to tenure? I remember reading that the California public schools, i.e., the largest in the U.S., tenured teachers after two years.

    (That’s a nit, of course. I think the main reason for not wanting to teach in public schools was articulated by one of my flight instructors, who had been an excellent English teacher. His reason for quitting was that he found that keeping students together for one-year blocks resulted in some students falling hopelessly behind and learning nothing. He thought that students should be reevaluated and reshuffled every 4-8 weeks, as they are at many adult language schools, so that a student was always in a class appropriate to his or her level. This mirrors my experience in tutoring at the local high school. I am amazed at how little math some students know and it is painfully obvious that they are getting nothing out of their hour every day sitting in a lecture that is way over their heads.)

  3. A teacher

    July 23, 2008 @ 11:09 am


    The reason why Johnny can’t read, or add, is that his parents don’t spend time with him and read to him at a young age, talk math with him when is 3 or 4, teach him how to count before the age of 3, etc. Johnny’s all f’d up because his parents think parenting is a hands-off, passive task best done by someone else (television, internet, the streets, the school, etc.). They could get the world’s best teacher or professor to come and teach Johnny’s high school math or science class, but Johnny was screwed before he ever enrolled in kindergarten.

  4. John Armstrong

    July 23, 2008 @ 1:00 pm


    Are you sure the CA system isn’t predicated on previous experience? The ones I’m most familiar with are in central MD (the D.C.-Baltimore corridor). Those take significantly longer and require a master’s degree — preferably in the subject in question — before it’s granted.

    students should be reevaluated and reshuffled every 4-8 weeks

    That sounds like a fascinating idea, and worthy of experiment at one of these charter schools that districts keep sending up the flagpole rather than try to run the schools they already have. It can’t waste any more time than other education fads, nor more than the traditional approach.

    And come to think of it.. a public school quarter is nine weeks. If you have a week in there for evaluation and bureaucratic overhead, that works out to eight weeks between shuffles. Food for thought, at least.

  5. Nitin

    July 23, 2008 @ 1:33 pm


    Maybe, we expect too much out of teachers and too little out of parents. But, I had a stay-at-home mom who spent a couple of hours with me each day to make sure that I could add. Not too many parents have that kind of time anymore?

  6. Brian Chaim

    July 24, 2008 @ 2:54 am


    There is an innovative program developed by one of the world’s foremost mathematicians (turned hedge fund titan) James Simons which addresses this *exact* problem.


    It currently exists in the NYC area and San Diego… Easily the best program yet devised to meet the astounding shortage of non-gym teacher math teachers.

  7. John Armstrong

    July 24, 2008 @ 2:44 pm


    Brian: $18K + NYC teacher salary, even with the master’s in education (note that it’s not a master’s in math) doesn’t even start to beat the salary out of the gate at engineering and programming firms hiring mathematicians.

  8. Brian Chaim

    July 24, 2008 @ 3:53 pm



    that’s not the point. the point is that it rids these schools of the burden of mandatory, unionized equal pay for english teachers as math teachers, decried by Phil. $18K (now mostly $25K, BTW) is chump change to google employees yes, but goes a LONG way towards legitimizing the value of these math teachers in the high school millieu. also of course THE BEST math students will go into research but the second tier students won’t/can’t/shouldn’t especially when they have a _desire_ to teach.

  9. Geoff B

    July 30, 2008 @ 4:24 pm


    There’s another factor here other than salary – if you really like shakespeare, there aren’t all that many jobs for you. University positions are hard to come by, so teaching high school english or drama is actually one of the ways you can pursue your interests and still get paid for it. But if you really have a thing for, say, non-linear optimization or brownian motion, then teaching high school math isn’t going to do much for you. You’d have to really, really enjoy factoring equations, calculating the surface area of simple shapes, and maybe – maybe – calculating how far a car will travel based on the acceleration rate. You’d stay much closer to your passion doing financial work for a hedge fund.

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