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Better Math Education Critical To U.S. Competitiveness, Says Hedge Fund Guru

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NEW YORK (AP) _ James Simons knows a thing or two about the laws of supply and demand. He has been running the successful Renaissance Technologies investment firm for more than 20 years.

And from what he's seen in his own children's schooling and his firm's workforce, Simons says some basic rules of economics need to be applied to U.S. education: Those who are good at math should have an incentive to teach. In 2004, Simons founded Math for America, a program in New York City that gives stipends to people with a math background who are interested in a teaching career. The program became the model behind the national education program proposed in April as part of Congress' America Competes bill.

Simons, one of America's richest hedge fund billionaires, probably would have become a mathematician no matter what _ he says as a pre-schooler he contemplated math problems. Still, he stresses the importance of federal education programs. He was the first student to receive a fellowship to study math through the National Defense Education Act, which the government began in 1958 to compete in the Space Race. It successfully boosted the number of U.S. math and science experts.

The numbers have dwindled again, though, and the problem appears to be starting in grade school. About 40 percent of U.S. high school seniors fail to perform at the basic level in math, according to a recent federal study.

As Americans fall behind, employers across all industries struggle to find workers elsewhere. The government provides 65,000 H1-B visas for foreign professionals every budget year; the quota for fiscal year 2007 was reached well before the year started on Oct. 1, 2006.

Simons recently spoke to the AP about math education's importance on America's competitiveness in the job market.

What does the workforce at Renaissance say about Americans' skill sets?

Simons: The workforce at Renaissance reflects the paucity of trained Americans ... They're Chinese, they're Japanese, they're French, they're German, they're Icelandic, they're Russian, they're Polish _ I think have 20 countries represented.

Once in a while an American walks through the door, and we grab him if he's good, but fewer and fewer such folks are coming through the door.

We have, as a nation, been saved by H1 visas to bring people in ... and by sending out work to be done in India that had previously been done here. And India's not the only one capitalizing on our lack of trained people in America.

That can only go on for so long. India will get more wealthy ... and there will be jobs for those people back at home. Our supply is going to diminish and we'll be stuck.

I'm a big believer in immigration, but we shouldn't be dependent on immigration in our most sensitive, highly leveraged areas.

So it's a similar situation at other firms?

Simons: Everyone's hollering about H1 visas needing to be more plentiful ... Everyone's in the same boat _ everyone who hires.

When did you start noticing the math lag in the U.S.?

Simons: When my son was in middle school _ that would've been maybe 15, 16 years ago _ I began being concerned about how much math his teachers knew, and expressed that concern to the headmaster. He said, ``Well, our math teachers are just wonderful, why don't you just go and ask?'' So I did.

I started in the first grade _ I figured I might as well start in the first grade and work my way up _ and the response that I got when I talked to a first-grade teacher about math was interesting. She ... would typically giggle and say, ``Well, math is not my favorite subject.'' Now, can you imagine talking to a first-grade teacher who giggles and says, ``I really don't like reading?''

It's not that I think, oh, math is more important than reading _ it isn't. But on the other hand, it's pretty important, right? Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic.
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