Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Math Counts

Everyone in education these days is talking about preparing students to compete in a global economy where math and science will be more important than ever. Problem is we aren't even preparing them with the math they need for today's service economy.

Monday, I drove 25 miles over into Virginia, to do my shopping at the larger Wal-Mart and larger Food City (we have smaller versions of both in Letcher County, Kentucky). One of the things I particularly like about the new, larger Food City in Wise, VA, is the fresh meat and fish counter.

I asked the woman behind the counter (who looked to be in her 30's), for "three-quarters" of a pound of sea scallops. She put a container on the scales, and lifted a few scallops in. The read out said ".25" pound. She stopped, and asked me "Is that enough?" I thought perhaps I had not articulated well and she'd heard "one-quarter," so I said, "no, I'd like to have three-quarters of a pound."

Still the woman hesitated, and she asked again, "Is that enough?" Again, I repeated myself, and said no, and repeated again what I wanted.

Finally, in an embarrassed and apologetic tone, the woman said, "I'm sorry, I don't know how much that is." So I told her that three-quarters of a pound, was ".75" pound on her scale.

She was clueless on how to translate fractions into decimals, even the simplest and most commonly used decimals that are an absolutely essential part of her job of weighing out meats and fish for customers.

Translating fractions to decimals was something that I learned in the sixth grade, in 1962, in a working class neighborhood public school in California. A school, that moreover, was viewed as inferior to other, middle class and upper middle class neighborhood schools by the junior and senior high schools in the city. Students from my working class elementary school were routinely denied access to accelerated and advanced courses in junior and senior high schools, because we were deemed "under prepared." Yet, clearly, my elementary education prepared me better for the work world, than that of the Food City employee.

We appear to be missing the boat at a most basic level of preparation in math in elementary schools. Something needs to be done!

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