“Numeracy crisis” threatens first-world economies

Recent news reports and commentaries have again drawn attention to a “numeracy crisis” that threatens the economies of first-world nations.

In the U.S., a 2009¬†report by the National Academies again highlighted the desperate need to improve mathematical education, particularly at the K-12 level, where so many otherwise talented students either fall behind or lose interest. The report’s Summary concluded

Mathematics education has risen to the top of the national policy agenda as part of the need to improve the technical and scientific literacy of the American public. The new demands of international competition in the 21st century require a workforce that is competent in and comfortable with mathematics. There is particular concern about the chronically low mathematics and science performance of economically disadvantaged students and the lack of diversity in the science and technical workforce. Particularly alarming is that such disparities exist in the earliest years of schooling and even before school entry. …

The committee found that, although virtually all young children have the capability to learn and become competent in mathematics, for most the potential to learn mathematics in the early years of school is not currently realized. This stems from a lack of opportunities to learn mathematics either in early childhood settings or through everyday experiences in homes and in communities. This is particularly the case for economically disadvantaged.

In the U.K., a March 2012 report found that millions of adults have numerical skills only at the level commonly expected of an 11-year-old. The report also found that young persons with poor numeracy skills were twice as likely to drop out of school and are twice as likely to be unemployed. It calls for the U.K. to change its attitude to mathematics, so that being bad at math should no longer be seen as a “badge of honor” [UK Channel 4 report].

Among the highlights of the U.K. report are that one in five of business members questioned last year said that they had to teach remedial mathematics to their employees. As James Fothergill, head of education and skills at an employers’ group explained, “It’s really important that [employees] are helped to apply maths skills and concepts in practical situations, such as being able to work out what a 30 per cent discount is without doing it on the till.” Another important failing noted by many of the business leaders in the survey was that few of their employees were able to spot “rogue figures,” i.e., data that is likely to be in error.

A press report on the U.K. study concluded by noting:

The Department for Education said it was a “national scandal” that almost half the adult population have poor numeracy skills. It said it wanted the vast majority of young people to continue to study maths up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high-level and intermediate maths skills.

“We are undertaking a root and branch review of how maths is taught in schools, attracting the best maths graduates into the profession, strengthening training through our network of specialist teaching schools and we are overhauling GCSEs and A-levels to make sure they are robust and in line with the best education systems in the world,” the DfE said in a statement.

In a February 2012 dinner address, Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Brian Schmidt went so far as to warn that Australia’s resource boom was threatened by a lock of highly-trained engineers. He noted “Too many kids who are willing and able to excel at maths are taught by teachers without the competency required to teach the subjects they are teaching.” [The Australian report].

At the same forum, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said that part of the problem was because mathematics and science courses were considered “boring,” so that “radical curriculum changes” are needed. “We need to think about how to deliver the science and mathematics to a generation of students that have many more options available to them,” he said.

The situation is not bleak everywhere. Finland and Canada, for example, rated an “A” in an international ranking of 17 first-world nations in education and skills. Finland has ranked at (or near) the top of the OECD nations in educational performance for more than ten straight years [Atlantic article].

Canada’s strength derives, in part from the system’s primary focus on K-12 education. On the other hand, Canada has a challenge to educate and train the three million adults who have only “Level 1” literacy [Conference Board report]. ¬†This would seem to show that you do get what you pay for!

Meanwhile, the Asian tigers of Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea and Singapore are not standing still, with impressive gains in educational performance. See PIIGS, BRICS and STRAW for details.

So what can be done? Perhaps all nations can examine the educational programs of highly successful nations such as Finland. The Finnish educational system eschews standards tests, preferring instead custom tests devised by highly qualified teachers — several decades ago the government required all teachers to have master’s degrees. Another is their focus on basic education from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the population continues in either vocational or academic high schools. According to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, “The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society.” [NY Times article].

For some related details and discussion, see Scientists in politics, Poor quality math and computer science courses, Innumeracy and public risk and PIIGS, BRICs and STRAW.

[Added 11 Jun 2012] Improving mathematical education continues to focus the attention of governments worldwide. An article in the UK Telegraph reports that government ministers there are set to announce a new program specifying specific tasks that students will be expected to master at each grade, reversing a decade or two of “dumbing down” the mathematics curriculum in public schools.

[A version of this article appeared in The Conversation.]

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