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A good teacher can teach on any subject. Or, so they say.
Money-management trailblazer and philanthropist James Simons doesn’t buy that premise at all: “I don’t think I’d want someone to teach me surgery who had never done surgery.” For highly technical courses of study, “it is helpful to know the subject you’re teaching.”
Mathematics stands as a case in point. Simons—founder and chairman of a nonprofit organization intent on improving public-school math education—believes the average instructor of math today lacks what it takes to successfully impart vital understanding and skills.
“Through eighth grade...we do OK compared to other countries [based on international math scores]....But by twelfth grade, we’re right at the bottom,” he lamented.
The solution? Hire as math teachers only those who are genuinely adept in arithmetic, geometry, algebra and calculus, a point Simons stressed during his April 27 Annenberg Leadership and Management Speaker Series talk at HMC.
He added that he started nonprofit Math for America to satisfy pent-up market demand for excellent math teachers by developing instructors of just such superlative quality.
“We draw in bright [college] kids, give them a test of knowledge; if they pass the test, then we give them an interview; if they pass the interview, we invite them into the program,” said Simons, who also is board chair of a highly quantitative investment firm by the name of Renaissance Technologies LLC. Once enrolled, Math for America participants undergo rigorous training to equip them with the tools they’ll need in the classroom to help their students rise to the top.
Participants pledge to teach math in a public school for no fewer than four years following program completion. As incentive to make the commitment, newly minted instructors are promised up to $20,000 per annum over and above their taxpayer-paid salaries—granted, a pittance compared to what they could be pulling down by working in the private sector, he conceded, but still generous enough to have helped attract almost 300 New York-area collegians into the Math for America program there.
(Other cities where the program has taken root include Los Angeles, San Diego and the District of Columbia; it’s slated to soon start in San Francisco and Boston, Simons reported).
Joys of philanthropy
By way of background, Simons told the audience that he grew up in Boston and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a mathematics major, then received a doctorate in that field from the University of California, Berkeley. Returning to Boston, he taught for a time at M.I.T. and Harvard.
In 1964, he joined the hush-hush Institute for Defense Analyses (then based at Princeton University), where he helped crack encrypted message intercepts from the former Soviet Union. After four years, he was sacked for publicly speaking against the institute’s pro-Vietnam War policies. Simons subsequently served as chairman of the mathematics department at Stony Brook University in New York.
Some years later, Simons began dabbling in currency trading and found that he loved it, so much so that it propelled him toward a mid-life career change. Out, academia; in, money management with special emphasis on the development of currency trades modeling. He and a colleague then formed Renaissance Technologies.
Simons said it was in the mid-1990s that he became interested in philanthropy. Among his first charitable acts was the launch of a foundation to support basic research in mathematics, physics, life sciences and more.
Now, with Math for America, “[a]ll we want to do is give further evidence that the law of supply and demand works,” he mused. “Our real goal is to get the federal government to make a massive program along these lines, and cover the sciences as well as math”—a step Simons said he saw as crucial to putting “our country on the right track.”