Friday, January 20, 2006

Students lack the skills we don't teach 

My mechanic got rich yesterday when Mrs. S's car came back with a repair bill over $1300. Some of it is because the car is as old as Littlest Scholar, and some is because Mrs. S isn't all that interested in assuring her car's maintenance. I have no useful skills in the manual arts; I believe in specialization and exchange, which means I get to teach an extra course or pick up a consulting contract, and with that money pay my mechanic to specialize in his comparative advantage. But, my mechanic says, how can someone as educated as Mrs. S not pay attention to an oil light or a maintenance schedule?

I say education has little to do with it. And reading this article that college seniors lack literacy skills, I wonder what people think a college degree actually creates.
More than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.

That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.
Three of the four tasks on that list are quantitative; it doesn't surprise me much at all in a world where math is de-emphasized in universities' general education program. (I must be geting crotchety in my old age to think students in college should all take college algebra.) The study makes clear that no more than 30% have even basic quantitative literacy, like being able to look at a menu and figure out the cost of a sandwich and a salad sold separately. An older NAS study shows that only 10% of schools surveyed had a math or quantitative general education requirement that had no exemptions by 1993 -- over half had none whatsoever. And the courses taken now as the math requirements are set even below finite math (a precursor to college algebra that was in my high school in the 1970s the course the freshmen got). The same is true with the natural sciences. Most problematic is that students who are not in the sciences or in business often are given options for math-lite.

Note to parents: If you want your children to be in the share of students who are quantitatively literate, send them to schools with rigorous general education requirements in math and natural sciences, particularly if your children intend to major in education or the arts or social sciences. They won't get it otherwise.