Last month, more than half of the high school students who sat for the New York State Regents mathematics exam, which they needed to pass to officially graduate from high school, failed.
The distressing failure rate was evidence of poor student performance, poor teacher performance, a poorly designed exam, or all three. Whatever the cause, it was yet another example of the parlous state of mathematics education in the nation's schools.
In the institutional investment world, mathematics is vital. It is impossible to value a company if you can't calculate the present value of a projected stream of earnings. You need a higher level of mathematical ability to use the Black- Scholes model to calculate the value of options, which are embedded in many securities, and even such things as home mortgages.
Financial service companies should have a strong interest in doing whatever they can to improve education in general, and mathematical education in particular. Executives at most such companies, if they ever give the matter any thought, probably cannot figure out how they can get involved.
But executives at The Hartford, the financial services giant in Hartford, Conn., have found a way. Most recently the company, which spends almost $5 million supporting local schools and volunteer organizations focused on education, pledged $35,000 to fund the introduction of a revolutionary mathematics program in one local school.
According to Lynda Godkin, senior vice president, improving the basics of reading, writing and math skills in the local schools is a key target of The Hartford's philanthropic program. So, when an employee brought information about the program to her, she examined it.
After the Hartford School System and the local school's principal saw a demonstration of the program and signed on, the company's grant committee approved the funding.
The new program is based on the work of Rachel McAnallen, an extraordinarily successful teacher of mathematics to students from 1st grade to 12th grade. It is being developed and distributed by Aeon Knowledge, a private company in Bloomfield, Conn.
Ms. McAnallen has been filmed teaching different mathematical concepts to students in different grades using her techniques, and the film library is available to subscribing schools over the Internet through a portal known as the MathChannel.
With funding from institutions like The Hartford, Ms. McAnallen is filmed teaching classes in a sponsored school for a week. She spends mornings teaching classes while the school's own teachers observe, and she then spends the afternoon conducting a workshop on her methods for the school's teachers.
The film of Ms. McAnallen teaching in the school is provided to the sponsored school free, and the teachers can access Ms. McAnallen teaching other grades and other concepts on the website. Other schools can subscribe to the MathChannel for $200 per teacher per year to gain exposure to the techniques.
According to Charles L. Munigle, president of Aeon Knowledge, approximately 250 schools around the country have adopted the program and subscribed, and the MathChannel went live for subscribers July 8.
Rhode Island has subscribed to the program for 15,000 of its teachers who teach math, Mr. Munigle said, and Maryland is funding subscriptions for the teachers in Prince Georges County.
Given the importance of mathematical education to the financial services industry, surely many financial services companies might find it worthwhile to follow The Hartford's example, examine the MathChannel concept and think about financing its introduction into a local school or two.