16. December 2004 · Comments Off on Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics · Categories: General

Pepperdine Economics professor Gary Galles comments in today’s Orange County Register on the fact that, if we are ever to regain superior performance in mathematics education, we must first change our attitude about mathematical figures:

A major international comparison using 2003 data is the latest in a long line to conclude that Americans’ mathematics mastery is inadequate. The Program for International Student Assessment found that for 15- year-olds, “U.S. performance in mathematics literacy and problem solving was lower than the average performance in most (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. The United States also performed below the OECD average on each mathematics literacy subscale representing a specific content area.”

If form holds, this report will divide students, parents, teachers and administrators into camps who blame each other.

However, what is unclear is whether all the finger-pointing indicates a real desire to overcome our innumeracy. The fact that we frequently use mathematics to intentionally fool ourselves (and other facts as well) argues against that conclusion. When we systematically abuse numbers to distort reality, it is no surprise that we handle mathematics poorly.

This goes hand-in-hand with this report from today’s NYTimes:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 – A federal Education Department analysis of test scores from 2003 shows that children in charter schools generally did not perform as well on exams as those in regular public schools. The analysis, released Wednesday, largely confirms an earlier report on the same statistics by the American Federation of Teachers.

The department, analyzing the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test for fourth graders, found charter students scoring significantly lower than regular public school students in math, even when the results are broken down for low-income children and those in cities.

I will have to keep an eye open for commentary on this Education Department “analysis”. I know the American Federation of Teachers report was roundly criticized for massaging the numbers. I know both of these organizations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and see the rise of charter schools as a threat.

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