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Civic Numeracy: Does the Public Care?

by Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Vice President, Public Agenda

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

Many major national issues--for example, balanced budget, national debt, health insurance, social security--rest on complex quantitative arguments such as rates of growth and economic forecasts. In what ways does our collective innumeracy impede civic discourse?

Issues such as the budget deficit do indeed have a technical and mathematical component which may be poorly understood by the public. The debate between experts and the public often turns on precisely these issues, and this does cause severe policy problems for our country.

An obvious example is the current discussion of Medicare and Social Security. Experts are fond of pointing out that these programs are not really actuarially sound insurance programs and that, in most cases, the benefits an individual receives far exceed the contributions paid in over the years. ... The public, however, regards these entitlements as something they have bought and paid for with insurance premiums, and regard any attempt to tamper with them as a profound violation of their rights.

It is tempting to think of this as a problem of innumeracy, since the simplest mathematical calculation reveals the imbalance between premiums and benefits. There is, of course, a certain amount of truth to this way of characterizing the problem. But there is also a great danger in seeing the debate this way. Defining this issue in terms of public innumeracy feeds into a characterization which is all too common among leadership, and one that is deeply resented by the public. This way of defining the issue suggests the public is stupid and the experts are smart, and if people were just a little less dumb or a little more mathematically sophisticated, we could balance the budget and solve more of our public problems.

Our work, however, has tended to frame the public's resistance to the solutions posed by experts in a broader context. We see the root problem not as conflict between an innumerate and uneducated public vs. a numerate and sophisticated elite, but as a conflict between the public's moral and value-driven perspective on issues and an expert perspective that is increasingly technical and value-free. [So] it is not that the experts are smart and the public is dumb, but that the two groups approach issues from different and somewhat incompatible frameworks. ... Seeing the problem as numeracy vs. innumeracy distracts us from the real issue, which is a growing gap between the expert tendency toward technical analysis and the public's moral perspective.

Does this mean that the public finds quantitative literacy unimportant?

It is not that the public denies the importance of quantitative literacy. The debate is about priorities. People are morally outraged by their perceptions that schools are violent and unsafe ... and that young people can graduate from school without any idea about how to behave in the adult world and without even minimal English competency. ... Discussions of quantitative literacy, if they are advanced in isolation from the context of broader moral and value concerns, are more likely to alienate the public than to win public support.

All of our research suggests the public sees education in terms of a certain order and a certain set of priorities. People believe that unless the fundamentals are in place, the next steps are jeopardized. Just as people don't think kids can learn anything in an undisciplined environment, the public doesn't think kids will learn very much advanced math until they acquire the "number facts." ... Their view is that the shift toward computers and high-technology has made basic mathematics even more essential, not less so.

This can easily sound like "Back to Basics." Does the public value equally higher order thinking?

What the public is really saying is not "just the basics," but "first the basics." It is not that people think higher order skills are unimportant, but rather that the public is even more concerned about two other issues. The first is that people believe that until the basics are acquired, nothing else can be learned at all. Secondly, they believe many children in today's schools are not acquiring the basics. The debate about higher order thinking is, for them, a secondary issue since they are convinced that children will never acquire higher-order skills until they have learned to read, write, count and behave.

Deborah Wadsworth is Executive Vice President of Public Agenda, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization, where she works to improve the quality of public education. She can be reached by e-mail at paresearch@aol.com.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997