Sacha Blumen draws my attention to a profile of James Simons, a US mathematician (and hedge fund squillionaire) who has put together Math for America, with the goal of getting more mathematically talented teachers into American schools.

The number of students pursuing math and science degrees in America is in decline. Those that do study these subjects often enter fields that pay better than education. Simons’ idea for persuading more graduates to become educators is a no-brainer: Pay them more.

“With all the good will in the world, once you get married and have kids, it’s a tough job and the alternatives are so attractive,” Simons said, his voice a near-pitch-perfect Humphrey Bogart, with a slight Bostonian inflection. “Teaching math and science ought to be a professional activity in which those professionals are well-paid and happy to do that as a career.”

*Jonathan Schweig, program manager at Math for America, gives a pep talk to recently graduated fellows before they begin work in classrooms in September. Credit: Scott Kawczynski*

In order to turn his ideas into action, Simons recruited his poker buddies, other mathematicians, and educators to start Math for America as a non-profit pilot program in New York City.

“It’s more of a challenge here than anywhere else, and mathematicians like challenges,” said MfA Executive Director Irwin Kra, Simon’s long-time friend and colleague in the mathematics department at SUNY-Stony Brook, about the decision to begin in New York.

Together, Simons and his colleagues devised a plan to pay for each of the program’s participants (known as “fellows”) to receive a master’s degree in education and also provide them with stipends of $90,000 each, on top of their salaries, spread over their first five years in the program.

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While admirable, I doubt this scheme will have any but a marginal effect. Why? Partly because to make a significant dent on the numbers of mathematicians becoming math teachers would require sums that even hedge fund squillionaires would have difficulty raising.

More importantly, no amount of money compensates for the boredom of teaching. Speaking as one, I contend that most mathematicians pursue non-teaching careers because those careers are more interesting than teaching, especially for mathematicians with better-than-average mathematical abilities. I think we will always be fated to have worse-than-average mathematicians teaching the subject at high school, at least while teaching remains an activity primarily undertaken by humans. A better use of a squillionaire’s spare cash would be the development of computer teachers of mathematics.

Its not mathematical ability that matters at that level, its teaching ability – above all the ability to convey a sense of wonder.

Having had two kids in high school, I have to say that I was happy throughout with the standard of teaching in every subject but maths. And it was by no means all the teacher’s fault. I looked at the textbooks, curricula and assignments – talk about killing an innately interesting subject stone dead! Lots of rote repetition, lots of totally counterproductive dumbing-down, no intellectual adventure. No wonder most young adults hate maths.

Mathematical ability is important at every level of teaching mathematics. If you comprehensively understand the material, you won’t make silly errors in teaching that you might not otherwise realise you’re making.

Unfortunately, as maths is not generally intuitive, most people do need to do lots of exercises and problem solving to internalise and understand the material. This can be done in different ways of course! I was very happy when uni students told me that they could actually understand the material when I was lecturing and tutoring them in first and second year pure and applied math.

For example, you have to be careful in teaching combinations, permutations and probability in high school. If you don’t have a good grasp of these things, it’s easy to teach the wrong material!

Perhaps I overstated. But really, the level of talent in mathematics you need to teach, say, primary school kids is much less than that for teaching postgraduates; in the former case it is not generally the binding constraint. But ability to bring the subject alive and to make the students delight in learning is.

Of course the material you’re teaching postgrads is very different to school students. Agree that it’s great if the subject is brought alive and made interesting.

A few inspiring teachers make a hell of a difference. That difference could actually evaporate if they are the smug possessors of an astonishing salary, which separates instead of inspiring to emulate.

I have a university medal in mathematical statistics. Despite this I never fully understood probability theory until two decades after my degree, primarily because I was only taught one means of representing uncertainty (the standard theory of probability, which treats the Kolmogorov axioms as the only ones possible). What I was taught at high-school was a complete joke, with neither myself, my classmates, nor my teachers understanding the theory or its applications.

It is not for nothing that the alternative means of representing uncertainty (eg, Dempster-Shafer Theory; Possibility Theory) have taken human-kind another 300 years following the development of the standard theory to be discovered. The subject is inherently difficult. I have come to realize that, like the novels of Jane Austen, probability theory requires the student to have a certain level of maturity for it to be understood. It should not be taught at high school, and perhaps not even to undergraduates.