What Society Expects
of School Mathematics
Two Madison-area business leaders--Linda McIsaac, CEO
of Wisconsin-based EXPCT, Inc. and Jim Miller of the Wisconsin Policy Research
Institute--give their views of what business expects of school mathematics,
and Richard Askey, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin,
cites a National Urban League study in support of an expansive vision of
school education. Economist Robert Meyer of the University of Chicago challenges
both education and business to examine evidence in support of their beliefs
about what really matters in mathematics education. These comments come
from an October 1995 Roundtable held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Linda McIsaac: I'm very concerned, as are most business owners, that
new employees do not know how to use technology to increase productivity
and achieve business objectives. People really need a lot of help in mathematics;
this is the most important thing that educators should be concerned about.
If you look at new employees' ability to perform skills used every day in
business and management--spreadsheets, Total Quality Management (TQM), Pareto
diagrams--you see a pretty sad picture. Students just don't know these things.
Their skill set is just not there. Business owners are concerned about the
skill sets of employees at all levels. The private sector has really practical
concerns, and they see a big gap in students' mathematical skills.
Business uses benchmarks to achieve its goals. Why don't we do that in education?
We know the characteristics of effective schools, so why are we still dilly
dallying around? Out where I am in the private sector, we desperately need
employees with better skills. No one can survive without mastery of the
Schools must teach the standard tools of business--for design, for benchmarks,
for productivity. We need to get teachers out into the private sector to
see for themselves what really matters and then relate the skills they teach
to real job requirements.
Jim Miller: It's great when our best kids take calculus in high school.
But what matters is that we remain competitive with Japan and Germany. We
need to be sure that all our students are doing as well as students in other
countries. It isn't enough to make our best kids competitive. We need to
make all our kids internationally competitive.
In this country, we think that feeling good about math is good enough. Why
does the University of Wisconsin offer a course that is primarily about
adding fractions? What's that doing in a great university? If we don't expect
kids to take algebra, they won't. But if we do expect it, they will.
We need to start worrying more about output than about feelings. There's
almost no accountability now. Students are not being challenged. If they
feel good, they think that's enough. I don't think that's enough. "Feel
good math" is not good enough.
Richard Askey: We should look at the National Urban League goals
for high school graduates: to be able to research, organize, and write a
twenty-five page paper on a challenging topic, to be fluent in a foreign
language, and be able to do calculus. Further details are given in Jeff
Howard's paper in "The State of Black America 1993". In my view,
the mathematics goal is realistic; for example, it is less than what is
achieved in Japan.
Robert Meyer: We need hard data to see whether the skills cited in
reports like SCANS and NCTM really matter in the world of work. It is not
enough to just ask people what mathematical skills they use, or what they
think their employees need. One should, instead, observe people at work
and do research on this issue. There is some legitimate disagreement about
which skills really matter.
I think the ethos in education of testing beliefs about what skills really
matter is not as strong as it should be. Education as a field is not disciplined
sufficiently by the notion of validity. We need to conduct studies to see
if what we believe to be valuable really matters in the lives of our students.
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Last Update: 11/19/95