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Organizing Mathematics Education
around Work

by Gary Hoachlander, President, MPR Associates, Inc.

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

Americans are quite ambivalent about focusing elementary and secondary education on preparing young people for work. ... Many view vocational education suspiciously, calling it a "dumping ground" or a "dead-end detour" that moves students away from the road to college and a successful career. ... Americans generally believe that while education should help prepare all students for productive adult lives, it should not be the servant of narrow, short-term demands for labor in the business community.

Most also agree that it is wrong to forcibly track young people into particular kinds of jobs, especially when such coercion reflects gender, race, or class biases about who can do what in the work world. Encouraging students to adopt career paths rather than job training may help to broaden their future options and reduce the potential for this kind of discrimination. However, it is still debatable whether it is wise to counsel high school students to choose any career track at such an early stage in their awareness of options.

Using work, therefore, to make mathematics (or any other academic discipline) more engaging and understandable presents an important dilemma. On the one hand, the workplace offers the promise of making mathematics concrete, realistic, and lucid. On the other hand, a work-centered approach can unwittingly seduce educators to force young people into making inappropriate, premature decisions about their future directions. Resolving this dilemma requires that one pay careful attention to two principles about the role of work in education.

First, the primary purpose of using work in mathematics instruction should be to provide a focus to make mathematics more authentic, thereby helping students to master knowledge and skills that are applicable to a wide range of situations. The purpose should not be to prepare students better for particular occupations, to increase the likelihood that they will be more efficient solvers of specific work-related problems, or to make them better users of the latest technology or machinery.

Second, to ensure that work-related applications of mathematics reflect breadth and sophistication, it is essential to conceive of work broadly and for the long term. ... For example, concentrating on applying mathematics to problems encountered in autobody repair will be far more limiting than thinking about how mathematics is used throughout the entire automotive industry (including engineering, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, finance, and so on). Similarly, focusing on mathematical requirements for entry-level positions in an industry, rather than on the full range of assignments, will most likely produce a high concentration of simplistic, low-level uses of mathematics.

Ironically, industry's expectations about the quantitative literacy for workers are much higher than either employers or educators have assumed so far, because both parties have been viewing work much too narrowly. There is probably little of even the most advanced high school mathematics curriculum that does not have rigorous, interesting applications in the world of work. For example, ... algebra pervades computing and business modeling, from everyday spreadsheets to sophisticated scheduling systems and financial planning strategies. Statistics is a mainstay for economists, marketing experts, pharmaceutical companies, and political advisers.

In short, the world of work is not at odds with promoting the high mathematics standards sought by mathematics teachers, the higher education community, or the public at large. To realize this potential one does not have to abandon or dilute traditional high school mathematics subjects. ... More strongly connecting mathematics education to the world of work offers the promise of benefiting both domains.

Gary Hoachlander is president of MPR Associate, Inc., a management consulting firm. His own focus in on education and work, including curriculum integration and accountability. He can be reached by e-mail at ghoachlander@mprinc.com.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997