WASHINGTON -- Business and science groups are reviving images of the Cold War space race in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spend millions to recruit and train high-caliber math teachers.
They argue that, just as a stronger focus on math helped the United States top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the country needs to improve math education to win an economic race with China and India and a security race against terrorism.
The groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers' attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate US math and science efforts.
''The interesting sort of difference in the dynamic then and the dynamic now is that we were competing with a military threat, whereas now it's much more an economic threat," said Susan Traiman, an education and workforce policy lobbyist for the Business Roundtable.
It may be a hard sell in Washington.
Though it's unlikely anyone in Congress will say math isn't important, it may be tough to persuade lawmakers to devote new money to hiring and training teachers in a time of tight budgets. Some may feel there's no need politically or practically for a major education initiative just four years after President Bush's overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act.
The lobbying also looks to public opinion, and it can be difficult to inspire much passion for math even though Americans worry about jobs moving overseas, the number of college math majors is declining, and student math scores lag behind those in many other countries.
The Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, an epic event to Americans at the time but now known to many only from brief references in history class. The United States sent Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk in 1969, ancient history for students now deciding whether to take a tough high school math class or to pursue math careers.
Lobbyists acknowledge those challenges, and say they see reason for optimism.
A bipartisan group of senators recently proposed legislation offering incentives for math majors to pursue teaching careers, and Bush's State of the Union speech tonight is expected to mention US competitiveness. The National Academies, a group of science and technology experts, has joined those calling for substantial investments in math and science education.
Business lobbies -- including the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, and TechNet, a group of high-tech CEOs -- are pressing for a national push on math. And some in business have already started pursuing math teacher-improvement efforts on their own.
Math for America offers scholarships, mentoring, and pay bonuses to math whizzes who become teachers. The program was founded by Jim Simons, who earned a doctorate in math through a Pentagon program during the space race, worked as a math professor, and went on to found a hedge fund and become a Wall Street billionaire.