Was Darrell Huff at the State of the Union Address?

January 26, 2011 at 6:13 am Leave a comment

Perhaps my all-time favorite joke:

How many school administrators does it take to change a light bulb?
Cha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ange?

Or, if you prefer:

How many school administrators does it take to change a light bulb?
What was wrong with the old light bulb?

These jokes seem particularly relevant after listening to last night’s State of the Union address. Here’s why.

President Obama made a bold statement about his plans for the future of education. “Over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.”

Oh, please. I’m a Steel Town Democrat and generally an Obama supporter, but this is another instance of using a big number to sound impressive. Bill Clinton employed a similar tactic in his 1998 State of the Union address, when he announced funding for the training of 100,000 additional teachers to help reduce class size. Truth is, adding 100,000 teachers to the current pool of 3,000,000 teachers would only reduce class size by about 3% — which translates to 1 pupil fewer in a 25‑student classroom.

The problem is, 100,000 just isn’t enough. In 2007, Barbara Pytel claimed that hundreds of thousands will leave the teaching profession in the next few years as the baby boomer generation enters retirement. Her prediction for math and science was particularly dire. “It is estimated that the US will have a shortage of 280,000 math and science teachers by 2015” (Baby Boomer Teachers Retiring: Study Predicts Major Problem by 2015).

So what good will only 100,000 new teachers do? That’ll still leave a shortfall of 180,000.

In March 2009, Richard Ingersoll and David Perda of the University of Pennsylvania calculated that colleges and universities actually produce 150% more math and science teachers than schools require to replace those who are retiring. That’s right. Annually, the number of new teachers is 2.5 times the number that leave due to retirement.

The problem isn’t the number of new teachers or the number who retire. It’s the number of teachers who leave the profession for a better job. Statistics vary wildly, but some estimates say that 1/3 of new teachers leave the profession within 3 years, and up to 1/2 leave within 5 years.

Why do teachers leave? We all know the answers, and we have data to prove it. In the study by Ingersoll and Perda, they found that 59.9% of teachers said they leave the math classroom because of poor salary and benefits, and 67.5% said they leave because there was inadequate time to plan and prepare. Really? You mean teachers want time to do a good job, and they want to be adequately compensated for their efforts? Go figure.

Last night President Obama said, “In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’ Here in America, it’s time we treat the people who educate our children with the same kind of respect.” Yeah, no kidding. If you really believe that teachers deserve more respect, then please stop trying to deceive us with large numbers, Mr. President. Instead, how about some effort toward improving the salary and working conditions for our nation builders?

In his defense, I believe Obama is willing to take the steps necessary to resuscitate a broken system. Last night, I just kept wishing that he would have talked about his plans for reform that might actually fix the problem.

BONUS: Speaking of using large numbers to deceive, here’s a math problem for you. A radio commercial several years ago attempted to promote the selectivity of Dunkin Donuts. The commercial stated, “We reject more than 1,000,000 pounds of coffee beans a year.” Are they really that picky? Do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine the percent that they reject. You can find information online about the number of Dunkin Donuts stores in the world, the amount of beans needed to make a cup of coffee, how many cups are sold, and so on. And even if you can’t, make some conservative estimates. You’ll still be surprised by the answer your calculation reveals.

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My Perfect Sunday Tall Tail, and Other Funny Phrases

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

MJ4MF (offline version)

Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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