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Decline Blamed on Early Teaching : Math Ph.Ds Going to Fewer Americans

December 20, 1987|TRUDY TYNAN | Associated Press

AMHERST, Mass. — The American mathematician is becoming an endangered species, says a professor who took a survey and found that only 362 U.S. citizens got doctorates in math during the 1986-87 school year.

"Mathematicians may not have the same kind of public appeal, but we are in much the same position as the bald eagle," said Edward A. Connors of the University of Massachusetts, who coordinated the survey for the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Assn. of America.

"One big difference is there is no penalty for laying off a math teacher, even though school superintendents ought to be fined as severely as for killing a bald eagle," he said.

Connors blamed a large part of the decline on a decades-old shortage of qualified teachers at the elementary and secondary levels.

Lack of Early Interest

"There's always been a finite pool of people with mathematical ability, and if they aren't interested before they enter high school they are not going to take enough math to have the option of exploring the field by the time they get to college," he said.

Some people will go into mathematics whatever the odds and obstacles, he said, but added: "They don't tend to be the kind of people who become good teachers, and we are losing anyone who can do anything else."

The number of math doctorates from U.S universities has been steadily declining for 15 years, and last June, for the first time, fewer than half the doctorates awarded went to U.S. citizens, he said.

In the 1972-73 school year 774, or 78%, of the 986 math doctorates were earned by citizens, of whom 78 were women.

By 1986-87, the number of doctorates had dropped to 739 and U.S. citizens accounted for 49% (with 73 women).

Future Impact Seen

At that rate, there won't be enough American math Ph.Ds to replace those who got their doctorates in the 1960s when that generation begins retiring, he said. "And that's going to have a significant impact on the future of American business, industry and government," he said.

The sharpest drop has been among white men, who in the past have dominated the field, he said.

"Those with mathematical ability are going into investment banking and computer science," Connors said.

The percentage of women getting math doctorates has risen from 10% in 1972 to 20% this year, although the number of women has remained fairly stable.

"I don't know if there is an answer," said Betty Vetter, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. "We've lost the men, and women and some of the minorities are woefully under-represented."

Over the last five years, only 27 black men and 13 black women received doctorates in math from U.S. universities, according to the AMS-MAA surveys. Among Latinos, 17 men and six women earned math Ph.Ds.

Ethnic Breakdown

Of the more than 14,000 people with math doctorates working in the United States in 1985, 145 were black, 255 were Latino and two were American Indian, Vetter said.

"Asians are supposed to be the model minority, but 93% of the 1,058 Asian math doctorates in the U.S. in 1985 were not born here," she said.

"We are making a closer study of the problem, but there are strong indications that after the first generation, Asian children are as (math) deprived as other minority groups."

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