Watch Out For That Third R

There's a lot of concern about the state of California's school system and its apparent inability to teach students to read. I'm concerned that in the debate over how to achieve that goal, mathematical literacy may suffer. More correctly, our attempts to recover from the current mathematical illiteracy may suffer.

There are real costs to illiteracy as well as the intangibles. The value of reading a great book is immeasurable, and there's also the value of reading the instructions on setting up that gas grill. But mathematical illiteracy rears its head as often in today's world.

Consider the mounting credit card debt. If we were teaching math properly, far fewer people would be getting over their head in credit card debt while claiming that they had no idea how it grew so fast. A sixth grader should be able to calculate a year's payments on a credit card purchase. Multiplication and addition are pretty easy to master.

There's a lot of debate on gambling, too. Teaching simple probability is one way to reduce some gambling, particularly casino games of chance. The concepts required to understand that roulette is a losing proposition for any player are relatively simple. Probabilities and odds are directly and simply related. Proving that roulette is a losing game for a player again requires only our old friends multiplication and addition, and a sprinkling of probability.

Of course, better math classes won't eliminate credit card debt, or close the nation's casinos. Other causes contribute to credit card debt: people have unexpected health expenses; they don't get promotions they were counting on; etc. Gambling isn't cut-and-dried either. Some people play roulette when they know they'll lose in order to talk with people at the tables. People who are informed about the mathematics involved in their choices often make choices based on other considerations. My point is not to debate those choices, but to highlight the mathematical skills necessary to make informed decisions in this area.

Educators and legislators who are genuinely concerned about improving education must keep the third R in mind. If there are milestones for reading, there should be milestones for math. If reading curricula are evaluated, evaluate the math curricula. And let's not forget those wonderful story problems where reading and math meet; encouraging the synergy between reading and mathematics can help learning both. In a world increasingly dominated by numerical arguments we ignore either reading or mathematics at our peril, and our kids' peril.

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