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Statistical literacy

In my school days, "consumer math," was a euphemism for dummy math. If you couldn't hack algebra or trig, Consumer Math class was for you. Ironically, today's graduate needs "consumer math" a heck of a lot more than trigonometry. In such a course I would include: 

  • Calculating interest rates on credit cards and other consumer loans.
  • How to do your own income tax returns - state and federal.
  • Determining both the rate of return and maintenance cost on mutual funds and other investments.
  • Reading and interpreting statistics in the media.
  • How to spot a Ponzi scheme (or how to run one).
  • Applied statistics: chance of wining the lottery, odds of paying higher taxes because you make over $250,000,  likelihood of inheriting a large sum of money when none of your relatives are rich, etc..
  • Creating a personal budget and retirement plan.
  • Understanding the current federal, state and local tax codes and determining the percentage of total income paid by different levels of income earners,
  • Doing cost/benefit comparisons of medical, life, health, car and home insurance policies.
  • Converting measurements from metric to English - applied especially to medications.
  • The fundamentals of entrepreneurship
  • And just a dose of bullshit literacy for good measure.

I'm sure you could add to this list rather quickly. I don't know who is qualified to teach it - maybe curmudgeons after retirement? Can we please get alternative licensure? If they let me design the math curriculum, Blue Skunk blog, February 8, 2011.

I need to add another competency to my math literacy curriculum: statistical literacy. While I mention interpreting and using statistics above, I think I give it far too short shrift. Increasingly statistics should be a class required of all educators in their well-intentioned attempts to use "data-driven" decision-making.

I shudder when I see educators make critical decisions on numbers derived from test scores, survey data, course completion rates, etc. without understanding and being able to use concepts like:

  • statistical significance
  • valid sample size
  • standard deviation
  •  mean and median
  • data bias
  • correlation and causation
  • graphing accuracy

Now I am not claiming that I personally have these abilities myself. The graduate stat course I took was about 37 years ago. It was an excellent class, taught by a middle school math instructor teaching adjunct at the University of Iowa.

But what has stuck with me from that class is the importance of viewing numbers as somewhat tricky beasts. W.I.E. Gates is attributed with the old saw "Then there is the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of only six inches." When we as decision-makers refuse to admin our ignorance, we become dangerous to those who depend on our good judgement.

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Reader Comments (2)

Great post! In NJ all students are now required to take a course called personal finance. It can be taught by either math or social studies (go figure) certified teachers. I'm not sure how much more savvy students are about their finances after taking this course. I thought about creating a course called Everything Your Parents Should Have Taught You But Didn't! I'd include things like doing the laundry (although I didn't do a great job of teaching my husband this skill; when I was in the hospital recovering from surgery and had literally just gotten out of ICU he called to ask me a question about the washing machine. Had no idea what a DE error meant. Had to explain it was door error he hadn't closed the door tightly enough on the machine! I laughed so hard despite the pain that I stopped talking. Husband thought the phone had gone dead. Think all the laughing made me recover faster). There are many other things everyone should be able to do but never get taught how. Guess that is why we have youtube videos.

July 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Gottsleben

Hi Deb,

Well, I never had problems doing laundry, but I never learned to iron. Stuff usually looked good enough for me if I got it out of the dryer soon enough!

I don't know that there would be a common curriculum for you class on what parents don't teach. I suspect we all have our blind spots. I am less concerned about teaching kids how to make a bed than I am about teaching empathy, kindness, and a work ethic. And I expect through example, not direct instruction are how those things are learned.

Oh, and I learn a lot from YouTube myself!


July 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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