Opinion
Standards Commentary

Statistics: The New ‘It’ Common-Core Subject

By Anna E. Bargagliotti — January 28, 2014 6 min read

As 2013 ended, the International Year of Statistics drew to a close, but the buzz of statistics and data continues to flood the news like never before.

From controversies over national security data-mining to Nate Silver’s precise election predictions to discussions about the analysis of big data, statistics increasingly influence our lives, and, as citizens, we need to be educated about what is at stake.

The demand for statistically literate citizens has grown. Jobs related to statistics are expected to increase by about 27 percent during this decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To respond to this surge in attention to statistics in society, it is crucial that we foster data literacy in our population, starting at a relatively early age. Teachers, the gatekeepers of the knowledge transmitted to our young people, must be able to teach students how to navigate the data world. If not in our schools, then where are individuals expected to acquire the knowledge needed to be statistically literate? And if teachers are the key, they themselves must understand statistics and learn the content and pedagogy for how to teach the subject at different levels.

The initiative of states to develop and adopt the Common Core State Standards in mathematics promises a leap forward for promoting statistics education in public schools. The standards, which are just beginning to be implemented this academic year, contain a substantial amount of statistics at the middle and high school levels, an emphasis that is not only welcome, but very much needed.

Investigating and learning statistical skills is beneficial to students not just because they are in the common core, but because they are key to their future understanding of business, government, and the news. Any student graduating from high school or college hoping to enter the job market will be more competitive if he or she has statistical reasoning skills.

A 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled “Big Data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity” asserts that, by 2018, the United States will be short 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical skills, in addition to 1.5 million managers and analysts with the ability to use data to drive decisions.

To respond to this surge in attention to statistics in society, it is crucial that we foster data literacy in our population.”

Students wanting to pursue jobs at companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook, or more traditional businesses such as insurance or real estate, will be at an advantage if they understand how statistical models can be used to tailor advertising and consumer incentives, or compute insurance premiums based on credit scores and other variables. Understanding how to model an outcome as a function of other variables while dealing with variability is a topic addressed in the common core, starting in 8th grade and continuing through high school.

At a more basic level, individuals need to be able to view charts and tables in the news and understand how to extract pertinent information from them. Even reading seemingly simple statements can be enhanced by a person’s statistical knowledge. For example, consider the statement written in an article about health-care costs in The New York Times on Dec. 2 of last year: “A day spent as an inpatient at an American hospital costs on average more than $4,000, five times the charge in many other developed countries, according to the International Federation of Health Plans, a global network of health insurance industries.”

To evaluate the reporter’s point, one must understand the concept of an average cost. For instance, an average might not be the best measure for summarizing costs since it is particularly sensitive to outliers. If there were just a few hospital costs that were very expensive while most were low, those very few would drive up the average. The median hospital cost and the variation in costs is important information to know when forming an opinion about this statement.

Comprehending certain information on a daily basis requires statistical knowledge that students should acquire in school through the successful implementation of the common core. However, even as our society moves forward in emphasizing statistics in the classroom, very few teacher-preparation programs require any statistics courses. During their training to teach at the elementary level, future educators in most states take somewhere between one and three math courses that typically contain only one small chapter dedicated to statistics. High school teachers have a single-subject credential in mathematics that, if their undergraduate mathematics department required it, they could satisfy with one statistics course. The preparation of middle school teachers can vary from one chapter in math class to one semester-long course, depending upon whether the state offers a specific middle school certification program, includes middle with an elementary certification, or requires a single-subject credential.

Teachers who are already teaching may have had no training in statistics at all. Professional development is a must, and districts should be dedicating resources to prepare teachers for understanding and teaching statistics in the spirit of the common core.

Teachers, like all others, need statistical knowledge to be active participants in society. In addition, teachers need to be skilled in the pedagogy to relate statistical topics to common-core subjects, when necessary. And furthermore, with the push toward accountability and assessment in schools, teachers need to be able to understand their student test-score data in order to employ data-driven decisionmaking in their own classrooms. Being able to use and analyze test-score data is particularly meaningful to teachers because it has a direct impact on their work in the classroom.

To respond to all of these issues, the American Statistical Association has summoned a group of statisticians and statistics educators, including myself, to write the Statistics Education of Teachers report. Set outlines the statistics that teachers of different grade levels need to know. For example, among other topics, high school teachers should be able to formulate statistical questions, make comparisons between distributions of variables, and understand how to quantify and explore relationships between two variables.

The report, slated to come out at the end of2014, will provide a statistics road map for teacher-preparation programs and districts that will enable students to become data-literate. It will be imperative that teacher-preparation and professional-development programs respond appropriately by expanding and adjusting curricula to address the recommendations put forth in the report. For example, teachers at all levels should have the opportunity to carry out statistical investigations by posing questions to their students and collecting the appropriate data to answer those questions, and then work with their students to analyze the data accordingly.

Although teachers are overwhelmed with responsibilities and teacher-preparation programs are jam-packed with requirements, educators must respond, and respond quickly, to the lack of teacher training in statistics. Otherwise educators will remain unprepared to teach this intricate material, and their students will be inadequately prepared to navigate a data-filled world.

If public education fails to respond to societal needs, student inequity will only grow. Those with more resources will find ways to ensure their children are ready to navigate a world filled with statistics, while others will be cut out of high-level jobs and opportunities, stranded on the other side of the digital and technological divide.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Statistics: The New ‘It’ Common-Core Subject

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