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What is Your Response?

A recent article published (4/7/2013) in my local Bellingham Herald newspaper was written by Renee Schoof of McClatchy news service. It focused on a current problem at General Plastics Manufacturing Co. in Tacoma (WA).

To quote the summary of the problem:

Before job-seekers fill out an application for work making foam products for the aerospace industry...they have to take a math test.

Eighteen questions, 30 minutes, and using a calculator is OK.

They are asked how to convert inches to feet, read a tape measure and find the density of a block of foam (mass devided by volume).

Basic middle school math, right?

But what troubles General Plastic executive Eric Hahn is that although the company considers only prospective workers who have a high school education, only one in 10 who take the test pass...poor scores on his company;s math test have been evident for six years.

For myself, what has been most interesting is the repetition of this sumamry on multiple blogs, all triggering a ton of reader comments and suggestions. Some examples of the wide variety:
  • If only we could focus on teaching math content and not how to take a required test
  • Shift the focus in schools from sports to academics
  • Problem solved if we adopt the metic system
  • Make math less abstract and bring back Dewey's concept of education that stressed meaningful activity in learning and participation in classroom democracy
  • The company is not paying they're enough to attract people who can pass their test
  • Problem would go away if we adopted Japanese approach to math education
  • All this is math ed hype created by Bill Gates inc
  • Are there 10 toes or 24 inches in 2 feet?
  • Innumeracy is rampant in America and fractions confuse quite possibly the majority of Americans...Reading a tape measure is all about knowing whether 3/16 is more or less than 1/4
  • You can thank the "education deformers"
  • Test doesn't concern itself with how to shift earned money into an offshore account
  • The majority of voters have difficulty understanding graphs, charts, dead basic statistics and probability, then they are easily bamboozled by shysters like Senator **** (climate denier) and Rep. **** ("legitimate rape")...There are many issues before the voters that require analysis and critical thinking: Quantitative Easing, Climate Change, Renewable Energy Systems, High Speed Rail, Cyber Security, Health care options, ....
  • Solution: get rid of discovery learning, group work, writing in math, collaboration, trying to make math fun or applicable...to which someone responded "Preach it, brother!"
Though the diversity of responses (and above is just a sample), I felt one respondent (LanternWaste) gave the most pertinent response:
I did poorly in math while in school, and for twenty years after that, I blamed my teachers, I blamed the system, the blamed the process, I blamed the textbooks.

Some years back, I ran into an alumni at a party who had shared pretty much all the same classes and teachers I had. He's a statistician in the here and now. When I asked him how he did so well considering the poor tools that had been at our disposal, he gently reminded me that I had left one conspicuous entity off my Blame List... namely, myself.

I was pissed off for a moment, yet suddenly realized that 25 years of being internally dishonest can do that to a person. Blaming everyone but myself was convenient, and left me without guilt for my own ignorance. I asked him, "how did you do so well in class?" He simply replied, "education is not given to us, it is a struggle... it is something we have to demand from ourselves in addition to teachers and staff. It is something we must work at. It is discipline, it is study, and it is not fun... and you had a LOT of fun in school, yes?"

He and I were given the same tools. He used the tools properly, while I instead, simply blamed the tools. Although math is still not a strong suit of mine, I realize that's because of the priorities and choices I had and took when in school. The indictment is on me alone. A difficult truth.

So what is the solution....or is there even a problem?

D.E. (Seattle) responds: "In reply to your math news item, I think we should first try to find out more about the population of applicants. Specifically, Iíd want to know how long the applicants had been out of school (on average). I donít think you can draw many conclusions at this point, and doing so is just using an anecdote to further oneís preconceptions.

Of course, in solidarity with the area math teachers, Iíll admit to a certain hope that these people have been out of school for awhile, in which case their lack of math skills is an indication of a societal problem. But if these are recent graduates, thatís more of an issue!"