On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King told the nation of his dream, and how long his people had been waiting. Seared into that speech was "the fierce urgency of now."
"Now" was 59 years ago. Much progress has been made on voting, housing, and employment, but not in many high-paying occupations. Among the remaining barriers to opportunity that has been getting far too little attention: gaps in math education and attainment across the social and economic spectrum.
Those deprived of solid math preparation are denied entry into many highly paid occupations. The lack of diversity in high-paid and rewarding professions, including the obvious ones – – engineering, science, IT, medicine, business analysis and finance, economics -- and, in this high-tech age, even history, political science, journalism, and the arts -- has lasted generations, reinforcing the income and wealth gap across race, ethnic and gender lines.
Unlike subsidies for rent, utilities, food, and other important assistance, a working knowledge of math cannot simply be transferred. Instead, that knowledge must be learned through an organized time commitment, involving both instruction and practice. For most of the math deprived, circumstances prevent them from making the necessary investment themselves. If the investment is to be made, and latent talents developed for the benefit of the individual and society as a whole, it must be done at public expense.
Investment in the Math Teacher Corps
Teaching math requires an educational background, experience, and love of the subject. These attributes are transferrable to many employment options; teaching is only one of them. To attract more highly qualified individuals to the teaching profession, pay them more and invest in smaller classes.
Invest in Tutoring
Many students find it difficult to get accurate and timely help with homework. One way to reduce this math-help gap is to offer online tutoring through virtual meeting technology like Zoom or Google Meet. To reverse this gap, widened even further by the Covid pandemic, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Brown University propose a massive increase in tutoring online. They outline a tutoring service staffed by 300,000 college students and other community members who could interact with students struggling with their math and reading:
"What we and many other researchers have found is that the most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations."
Matthew A. Kraft, and Grace Falken of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, set forth a ten-point "blueprint" for implementation. They propose that tutoring, greatly scaled up, could become a permanent feature of the U.S. public education system. "Tutoring is among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation." (https://www.edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai20-335.pdf)
Biden Tutoring Plan
Joe Biden endorses the plan to engage such a large number of tutors. Under the plan, "peer" tutoring be organized where successful students, properly trained, would provide the service for struggling students a few years younger: with high-schoolers earning class credit for tutoring elementary school students; college students earning work-study pay or course credit or partial loan forgiveness for tutoring high school students; and college graduates tutoring in high schools under the AmeriCorps program. Biden is including such a massive tutoring plan as part of his administration’s support for student success (https://www.whitehouse.gov). Finally, the state of modern technology should compel state and local governments to provide all students with laptops and WIFI hotspots so that students and school systems can take advantage of this tutoring option.
William L. Holahan is Emeritus Professor and former Chair of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.