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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 new technology.

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.

To add you voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here if your Web browser is set up for e-mail.

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Last Update: 11/19/95