A recent study, led by Michigan State University, found that Taiwan was preparing math educators better than almost any other country on the map. Ranked ahead of several European countries and well ahead of the United States in preparing qualified math teachers, what exactly is Taiwan’s secret?

It turns out that the ability to produce excellent math teachers is a combination of two different factors. First, teachers in Taiwan have a highly respected job status, competitive pay and great job security. Second, teachers in Taiwan – and other countries – are prepared with rigorous mathematics content and pedagogy classes at the university level. Teachers are not allowed into the classroom before proving that they have a deep knowledge and understanding both of mathematics and the best practices for teaching math in the classroom at the appropriate age level.

Why would these two factors matter in the production of excellent math teachers? The first has to do with the types of people who might be interested in teaching math. Students with high levels of math ability have many high-paying job options open to them. Presenting teaching as one of those options ensures that highly skilled and intelligent individuals want to enter and stay in the profession. The second factor ensures that all individuals who enter the classroom as a math teacher already have a demonstrated expertise in their subject matter. Apparently, Taiwan also has a system of mathematics education that focuses on having math specialists teach from the younger grades onward, and has steadily produced students with an excellent competence in mathematics as a result.

Granted, achieving these two factors in the United States would require a great cultural shift in the way we think about math education. Yet every year, our numbers on standardized math and science tests are falling, and our ranking world wide slips a little more. If these two factors could change that fact, wouldn’t it be worth our while as a culture to try it?