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Math Teachers: The Nation Builders of the 21st Century

Remarks to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics


I want to start by thanking you. All of you here today have dedicated your lives to the classroom and your students.

I know that you could have chosen easier jobs – and everyone knows there are plenty of better paying jobs--especially people with your high level of mathematical knowledge.

But you have responded to a calling – one in which you are transforming the lives of children every day.

President Obama and I understand the role that teachers play in preparing our students for success in life.

Other than parents, the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom.

It doesn't matter what the academic subject is -- or the age of the student.

From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is the teacher.

All too often teachers don't get the respect they deserve.

Shortly after he took office, President Obama travelled to Asia. He discovered that in South Korea and Singapore teachers are considered "nation builders." That is a powerful concept – nation builders.

In those countries, everyone understands that teachers are preparing the leaders and workers who will ensure the country's long-term economic prosperity.

Sadly, In America, our teachers aren't treated like the nation builders that they are.

Education is the key to America's success in the 21st Century.

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, recently said that "the best solution to income inequality is producing a high-quality education for everyone."

He believes that, in the information age, "people without education will not be able to improve their economic situation."

Our teachers are integral both to our economic and national security and to solving the civil rights issues of our generation.

Last month, I participated in a sobering press conference where military leaders outlined their challenges in recruiting young men and women into the armed services.

Here's a stunning statistic: 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.

Finally, I firmly believe education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

For all of these reasons, President Obama is investing in education reform. He is committed to reducing the deficit even if it means cutting some programs that he cares deeply about.

But in budget negotiations, he has maintained a commitment to our cradle-to-career educational agenda that is remarkable. We have to educate our way to a better economy.

The President understands that math teachers have a unique role to play in the future of education.

To be a well-informed citizen and a participant in the knowledge economy, Americans must be mathematically literate.

We need to be able to do basic computation and solve complex problems. We must understand the magic of compound interest and how it affects our personal financial decisions.

We should be able to use the logic of Algebra and the spatial reasoning of Geometry to understand and solve real-life problems.

These mathematical practices equip learners with the ability to solve complex problems and think critically about issues unrelated to mathematical concepts.

With these skills, our young people will have the potential to do amazing things – in math, in science, or whatever field they choose to pursue.

As professionals devoted to the teaching and learning of mathematics, you are the teachers, the school leaders, the professors, the curriculum developers, and the researchers who will shape young students' minds to be leaders of the future.

Today, it's clear that too few American students have the mathematical knowledge to compete in our 21st Century globally-based economy.

Look at the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Just 40 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math.

Although the NAEP scores have increased steadily over the past two decades, far too many students haven't mastered challenging subject matter in foundational skills of Algebra and geometry.

The international data is even more troubling. Data from the Program for International Student Assessment shows that American 15-year-olds are scoring below the average of industrialized nations.

Fortunately, educators have many model programs to follow. Walter Payton College Prep in my home town of Chicago is just one such example.

It's a high performing high school, but the teachers at Payton know they need to contribute to mathematics improvement in their broader community.

They run a citywide Saturday math program for middle school students who want to explore advanced mathematical concepts such as infinities, geometric inequalities, and complex geometry.

The school has a math team that has won state titles several times beating prestigious private schools. In the classroom, it's produced high achievement across all subgroups of students.

For all of their work, the team at Payton won an Intel Star Innovator Award last year as one of the best mathematics programs in the country. I understand that many members of the Payton math department are here today.

I'd like to recognize them and applaud their work.

Across the country, there are plenty of examples of math engagement, excitement, and extraordinary achievement like Payton.

Our challenge is to make these experiences the norm for mathematics education in America.

As mathematics educators, you will play a leading role in scaling what works and solving these problems.

I see three specific issues for math educators to address.

First we need to improve student achievement to dramatically increase the number of students graduating from high school and going to college prepared to succeed in higher level mathematics.

Second, we need to raise expectations of our students and increase the rigor of the curriculum.

And finally, we need to improve the quality of teaching in the classroom.

The first challenge is to prepare students for success in college. To ensure our nation's long-term competitiveness, President Obama has challenged America to once again lead the world in college completion.

Just one generation ago, we did lead the world with about 40 percent of our young adults earning college degrees.

We've stagnated while South Korea and other countries have passed us. Now we're ninth. To meet the President's goal, 8 million additional students will have to earn a degree over the next decade.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that Algebra is the key to success in college.

Students who have completed Algebra II in high school are twice as likely to earn a degree as those who didn't.

One of the best gifts math teachers can give their students is to teach them how to solve complex algebraic equations.

It provides the foundation of using logic to solve problems. It helps students make connections between multiple pieces of information. It teaches them to use reasoning to figure out which tools to use to solve a problem.

The Algebra experience prepares them for higher level mathematics and leads to academic success across the curriculum.

I want to add that Algebra is essential for all college students – not only those who are pursuing four-year degrees.

Every year thousands of students earn a degree from a community college or an industry-recognized certification that will help them land a job that leads to a successful career.

Those students will need to be mathematicians too. Airplane mechanics do complex measurements and work with proportions and ratios.

X-ray technicians calculate time exposures to capture the clearest possible image.

Most factory workers need to understand Algebra II or even some trigonometry to operate complex manufacturing electronic equipment. These are the jobs and the skills required to compete successfully in today's economy.

For all students, Algebra is a gateway for success in college – and beyond.

To meet the challenge of ensuring all students complete Algebra, our teachers need to increase the rigor of what's taught in the classroom.

For decades, researchers have documented that American schools aren't providing an in-depth mathematics curriculum.

They have called math instruction in America "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Historically, in many schools, the course of study repeats mathematical concepts several times over the course of the K-12 curriculum – providing students a superficial understanding of mathematical concepts without ever leading them to a mastery of the subject. Thankfully, that is changing in a profound way.

Through the courage and leadership of governors and chief state school officers, states are addressing this problem by adopting a common set of high standards in mathematics and language arts.

These standards are raising expectations for students.

Instead of dummying down the standards to make politicians look good, they increase rigor for students.

Starting in kindergarten, the standards put students on an instructional path to learn the mathematics necessary for success in college and careers.

Researchers are starting to analyze these standards and are finding that they are as rigorous as the expectations for NAEP and the achievement of the high-performing countries who are currently out-educating us.

NCTM has been a leader in the standards movement for more than two decades.

The new common core math standards build on the work of your organization and are closely aligned with your new Focus on High School initiative.

These standards have been adopted by 42 states, and teachers across the country will need to change their practice to be aligned with them.

I know NCTM is working closely with other math groups to begin the hard work of turning these standards into practice.

This will take time, and your leadership here is essential.

We need you as an organization and you as individuals to become leaders among teachers and principals so all teachers and all schools have the tools and supports necessary to make these standards come to life in the classroom.

We all know that standards aren't a panacea. We must couple them with the next generation of assessments.

Today's tests don't measure higher-order thinking skills or deep understanding of subject material. They focus primarily on computation and recall.

American students deserve better than the fill-in-the-bubble tests.

With $350 million available from the Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education is supporting the state-led effort including 44 states to create the next generation of math assessments that will be game-changers in education.

They will measure student achievement against the new standards and track whether students are prepared for success in colleges and careers.

These assessments are the ones that you've longed for. They will measure critical thinking skills and complex student learning.

These assessments will provide you with timely, high quality information that is instructionally useful and documents student growth.

I want to thank Mike Shaughnessy for playing an important role in this process.

The expertise that NCTM and other math groups bring to the table is critical to ensuring that these assessments build on what we know is possible for mathematics teaching and learning.

The voice of the mathematics teacher needs to be heard loud and clear to make sure the final products reflect what happens in the classroom.

New standards and assessments are a powerful combination. But they are not sufficient.

Teachers will need new tools and materials to make them work.

In the President's fiscal 2012 budget, President Obama has proposed $206 million to support projects for teachers of mathematics and the other STEM subjects.

These projects will provide you with what you need to succeed by creating instructional materials, identifying proven strategies, and providing professional development.

With new standards, assessments, and instructional materials, teachers will have the tools necessary to ensure students have the mathematical knowledge to be ready to complete college and succeed in their careers.

Our final challenge is to address the critical shortage of mathematics teachers and improve the quality of teaching in the classroom.

The President has set a goal of preparing 100,000 new teachers over the next decade. These teachers will have deep content knowledge and strong teaching skills in math and science, engineering and technology, and his budget makes a significant investment in teachers.

We are asking Congress for $80 million in the Teachers and Leader Pathways program to begin to reach this goal.

This program will support the creation or scaling up and expansion of high-quality teacher preparation programs.

Because we know that math and science teachers require both deep understanding of the subject matter and the instructional skills to thrive in the classroom, this program will fund traditional programs as well as alternative routes.

The budget also includes a new scholarship program to recruit high-achieving college students into teaching. With the Baby Boomer generation retiring, these recruitment efforts are more important than ever.

The Presidential Teaching Fellows program would provide scholarships of up to $10,000 to the best students in the nation's most effective teacher preparation programs.

After receiving the scholarship, these candidates would commit to teaching for three years.

Over the past decade, we've seen the development of new programs that are designed to recruit new teachers with deep content knowledge and instructional skills.

At the University of Texas, the UTEACH program has become a model by recruiting high-achieving students in the math and sciences and preparing them to use these skills in the classroom. It's a model that's been replicated across the country. Progress is being made, but we have had a shortage of math and science teachers for decades. If we are going to stop simply admiring the problem and solve the teacher shortage, we're going to need to have a real conversation about teacher compensation.

Because graduates with strong math skills have lucrative opportunities in other professions, our state and local districts need to provide financial incentives to draw them into the classroom and keep them there.

Our federal dollars: School Improvement Grants, the Teacher Incentive Fund and others can all be used to pay great math and science teachers more, especially in disadvantaged communities.

As we seek to strengthen the teaching profession and get our students who need the most help the teacher talent they need, I absolutely support paying mathematics teachers more as a way to keep our best math teachers in the classroom and recruit a new generation of talent.

In addition to recruiting new teachers, we need to help build the skills of those currently in the classroom.

It's no secret that most existing professional development programs are disconnected from the reality of the classroom. As a nation, we spend far too much money on professional development that is not what you asked for, and that is not meeting your needs. That must stop.

There are also examples of strong supportive professional development programs that clearly demonstrate that investments in teacher supports can lead to increased student learning.

I'm proud of our efforts systemwide in Chicago where our mathematics professional development programs showed significant gains in student achievement based on teacher participation and getting teacher input. Tracking this data and being very transparent about it helped us improve our professional development efforts each year.

Across the country, we must focus on two areas. First, we need new tools and materials for teachers to implement the new set of college- and career-ready common standards. Second, we must build the capacity of school and district leaders who understand both the teaching and learning of mathematics and also how to manage large support programs.

I cannot stress enough how important this work is. I see it as I visit classrooms across the country. Our children grow up so fast. The impact you are having on them is extraordinary, even if that's sometimes hard to see day to day.

Today, they're learning their multiplication tables and struggling to solve polynomial equations.

It won't be long, though, before they become the mechanics who repair airplanes, the pilots who fly them, or the engineers who design them.

They will become medical technicians who take X-rays, nurses who administer dosages of drugs, or doctors who perform surgeries.

Whatever they're doing five, or 10, or 20 years from now, the mathematics you are teaching them today provides them with the foundation for their success – and for the long-term prosperity of our country.

Thank you for being the nation builders who are making that happen.