01/17/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Why America Needs Good Teachers

Everyone who has been inspired by a great teacher to study harder and reach higher knows that teachers are important. Now there is strong data confirming that a good teacher can make a world of difference in a student's life.

A new study authored by Harvard and Columbia University professors Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff shows that teachers can change the trajectory of their students' lives. Students of capable elementary and middle school teachers not only have higher standardized test scores, they are more likely to attend college, have a lower incidence of high school pregnancy, and earn more as adults.

Other statistics confirm that education pays off. The median wage for young adults with a bachelor's degree stands at $45,000, while the median figure for those with just a high school diploma is $30,000.

All the evidence points to the fact that American students would have a brighter future if they were better prepared in our public schools to succeed in college. However, a report issued last year by the U.S. Census Bureau showed only 28 percent of Americans had a bachelor's degree or higher. If we want to keep the American Dream alive and grow the American economy in the years to come, more of our students are going to need a college degree, especially in the disciplines of math and science.

Why math and science? As the global economy quickly changes, countries that can stay ahead in areas such as engineering, chemistry, and technology will be the most competitive. Yet, the hard sciences are among the most challenging subjects for even the best instructors to teach. Worse, Education Trust studies have shown that troubling numbers of math and science teachers never studied the subjects they are teaching.

That's where the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) comes in. NMSI has stepped forward to support programs that give teachers the know-how to teach. And thanks to a recent merger with the Laying the Foundation (LTF) teacher training organization, NMSI is now able to provide teacher training from middle school through college.

That continuum of training starts in the middle school years with LTF, which devotes half of its training to giving teachers content knowledge in math and science and half to pedagogical coaching on how to teach those subjects. LTF has now trained 36,000 teachers across the U.S.

NMSI's teacher training continues in high school years with the Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP), which gives AP teachers in math, science and English the tools to help more students become college ready. APTIP has trained more than 8,000 teachers in the last three years.

While those two programs are aimed at the existing teaching corps, NMSI is recruiting college students to become the math and science teachers in the future through the UTeach program. The beauty of the UTeach program is that it draws bright students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math -- who are already steeped in math and science -- to become classroom teachers. Enrollment has tripled in UTeach in the last three years. A record 5,500 university students at 29 campuses across the country are now studying to become math and science teachers, which could transform classroom culture for many years to come.

These exciting programs are recognition that teachers matter. As the new Harvard-Columbia study confirms, we must pay attention to teachers if we want to give more of our students a life-changing educational foundation.

There is no time to lose: students in China are currently leading the world in science, math, and reading scores. These will be the very students that our younger generation of Americans will compete with in our globalized economy.

An increased emphasis on good teachers who can provide high quality math and science education should be a top priority for America's educational community and our political leaders. This is not just for the sake of raising standardized test scores, but because we understand the direct correlation between mastering essential subject matter and the success of our students and the country.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.