What mathematical skills do employees really use? What do employers understand about how mathematics is used in the workplace? What do educators understand about the mathematical expectations of work?
To address these questions, we need to have some common understanding of what we mean when we talk about mathematical skills. Are we talking about computation--operations with numbers, fractions, and decimals? In the '50s, we were training workers to handle numerical work that today is readily done by either calculator or computer. Acordingly, there has been a strong attempt to modify the curriculum to more closely reflect what we think are realistic workplace skills. Thus problem solving, communicating, and reasoning have become major goals of mathematics education.
One difficulty with having educators work on curriculum modifications without good articulation with employers is our limited experience in the workplace. Most teachers are professional educators and have little personal experience with careers for which we are attempting to prepare students. Teachers often do not have the opportunity to see the employment tests their students may be required to pass. This is an important area of potential focus--creating better access for teachers to the workplace.
Much of the work done today is the product of successful teamwork. In schools, we are attempting to help students develop cooperative skills so that solving problems as part of a group is not new to them when they enter the workplace. This is a big switch for many students (and teachers too), moving from individual work in isolation to earning a grade for work in teams to create a product.
There remains the difficulty of distinguishing between what we want students to "know" (skills, outright knowledge) versus what we want them to be able to do. Perhaps acknowledging the difficulty is a good starting point for these discussions.
Allison Harris is the Mathematics Curriculum Specialist for the Seattle Public Schools.