Education Opinion

A Nation at Risk for Real

By Susan Graham — September 29, 2008 3 min read
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I am trying to wrap my head around our current fiscal crisis. Not only am I having a hard time trying to grasp the implications of the still-developing disaster or the proposed interventions, I’m having a hard time just trying to really get a fix on what $700 billion dollars is. This is what it looks like:


That’s a lot of zeros. I trolled the internet to get some perspective on what $700 billion really amounts to.

If the federal government siphoned off Florida’s gross domestic product, we could cover the bailout. Invading the Netherlands might be advisable—that nation’s GDP was $768.7 billion last year.

In terms of individuals’ net worth, $700 billion is equal to 11 Warren Buffets, 12 Bill Gates, 280 Oprah Winfreys -- or 14 million average-earning American households.

“Cost” per citizen: $3,324 -- the equivalent of
one long living-large weekend at the Wynn in Las Vegas)
Hmm, somebody’s living a lot larger than I am. Because to me that $3.3 grand looks like a semester of in-state tuition our local University of Mary Washington.

Of course this is an optimistic estimate of the bailout cost. Some pundits predict that this is only the beginning. We are told the longer we wait the worse it will get. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little sick now.

How did we get ourselves into this mess? Well, the Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. Main Street blames Wall Street for being greedy and Wall Street blames Main Street for not reading the fine print. The one thing that they all agree on: It’s somebody else’s fault. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop and for all of them to turn to public education and say, “No one understands the numbers! They can’t do the math! We told you education people that we were a Nation At Risk and now look what has happened! We’re beginning to think that IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!”

Well, let it be noted that this whole thing might have been avoided if Wall Street read Teacher Magazine. My Teacher Leaders Network colleague Anthony Cody wrote on July 28th:

At the same time we have boosted the amount of higher math our students are required to take, we seem to have lost the most elemental common sense math from our schools – and our society. The past decade has seen people encouraged to borrow against the equity in their homes to make consumer purchases. This practice was sometimes even justified as “good debt,” because the interest is deductible.

Ed Week reported that the The National Mathematics Advisory Panel recommends every eighth grader should be taking Algebra which
Should include symbols and expressions; linear equations; quadratic equations, functions, algebra of polynomials; and combinatorics and finite probability. These should be the focus of state curriculum frameworks, algebra courses, textbooks, and end-of-course exams.

But it seems to me that our eighth graders don’t need Algebra as much as they need Numeracy or Mathematical Literacy which can be defined as
An individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded mathematical judgements and to engage in mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s current and future life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.

Lynn Arthur Steen explains numeracy this way:
Numeracy is to mathematics as literacy is to language. Each represents a distinctive means of communication that is indispensable to civilized life….. Despite great differences in structure and form, both mathematical language and natural language are powerful tools for description, communication, and representation. Numeracy is especially important for a nation expecting to compete in a global economy fueled by information technology. Whereas natural language is redundant, ambiguous, and concrete, mathematical language is concise, precise, and abstract. Full expression of our thoughts and visions requires the richness of both natural and mathematical language. Like yin and yang, numeracy and literacy are the entwined complements of human communication.

Teaching our students the codification of mathematics focused on how to do math problems without addressing how to use math to solve life problems is a misunderstanding of the discipline and a disservice to our children. Suggesting that they take advanced mathematics courses because “they will help you get into college” without providing an explanation of how they will “help you get on with life” is form without substance.

We are indeed a Nation At Risk and it will fall to the children in our classrooms to rescue us. To our great shame, we are about to saddle these young people with a crushing amount of debt while simultaneously pricing them out of higher education. It is probable that they will spend their lives paying for our lack of self restraint in economics and public policy. Unfortunately, fellow educators, we’ll have to figure out how to prepare the next generation for this glum future on the cheap, since we have overcharged our national credit card and we are likely to hear that there’s just no money for school supplies in the budget.

Sometimes I wonder if the economists on Wall Street really understand that they aren’t playing Risk with play money, but gambling with our businesses, our homes, and our retirement funds.

Sometimes I wonder if the policymakers in Washington grasp that this isn’t a debating society, and that their “good shots” to the opposition don’t score points, they imperil the stability of our nation.

Sometimes I wonder, when the grownups get through, will there be anything left on the table to address the needs of our children?

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