A Case for Consumer Math

22 Feb

Ms. Cornelius was talking about innumeracy, over at her blog.  Go on over there, and give her a read.  I’ll wait…

She talks a bit about memorization as well, and I agree with what she says about both.

It is the math portion of her post that I’d like to talk about and extend just a bit.   I briefly grazed the subject in a comment that I left there; mostly in response to an article she cites discussing the questionable value of algebra.  At the risk of Ms. Cornelius coming over and kicking me in the shin, I’d like to elaborate…

I was not a math whiz in high school.  In fact, I was pretty poor.  I goofed off and never took a lot of interest in the subject, but I also had a considerable amount of anxiety about the subject.  While I was able to escape having to take algebra in college, I did have to take some serious chemistry courses.  And chemistry is seriously into math when it comes to figuring out the concentration of a solution, molality and molarity, gas volume, pressure and temperature.

However, I am still head and shoulders above my special education teacher peers in the subject of math.  Very, very few of us are expertly proficient else we would be in higher paying occupations like engineering.  But there are some math skills that are crucial to making it in the real world that simply can not be avoided.

Let’s start in the grocery store.  I can buy 12 ounces of chicken nuggets for $2.44 or I can buy 28 ounces for $4.99.  Which is the better buy?  I’m not going to tell you, if you haven’t figured it out.  But my decision is based on more than price.  How much freezer space do I have?  Do I like the cheaper ones well enough or are the expensive ones worth the extra money?  And do I have the extra money needed to buy the better buy?  Then there’s the nutritional information; can I compare nutritional information even though serving sizes may be different? If, in order to buy the bulk amount, I have to charge it on my credit card instead of paying in cash, is it still a better buy at 21% interest?

And speaking of credit cards…as soon as these kids hit the college campuses they will be hit with all sorts of credit card offers.  By the time they graduate from college, in addition to the student loans, most will be facing a mountain of credit card debt.  Mostly because they can’t do the math and read the fine print.

So my question is this; where are these students going to learn these day-to-day skills?  In algebra class?  By taking an AP calculus course?  How much good is calculus going to do a person if they are sleeping under an overpass because they cannot manage their money?  There are a number of us that are concrete thinkers and the abstract thinking required for algebra is beyond the scope of many high school students.  I’m not going so far as to say that algebra is never used in real life, but frankly I rarely find myself having to simplify a binomial equation.  More pressing is how to calculate a 15% tip in a restaurant.  I can do it, simply because 10%+5% = 15%.  !5% of a $12 meal is $1.20 + $0.60 or $1.80.  I’ll tip $2 just to avoid being cheap and this is the south, after all.

Back in the day, we did have consumer math as a course for those of us not proficient in math.  While algebra was still going to be a requirement at some point, there was at least one other course to choose from in order to satisfy the high school graduation requirement.  Most of the students in that class were not destined for college.  I do have a problem with a curriculum exclusively designed for the less than 50% of students going to a 4 year university.  What about the rest?

An argument might be made to teach consumer math in middle school.  However, such a course is going to suffer from the same lack of relevancy that a high school algebra course does.  Most middle school students, while they are consumers of a sort, do not have to worry about interest or paying regular bills.  In high school, many of these same students will be hankering to go out and buy a car.  Now interest, insurance, gas milage and the cost of repairs has some relevance.  Many will be working or looking for a job, and they will begin paying taxes.  If they are savvy enough to understand compound interest, they may even start saving for retirement and be gazillionaires by the time they are 50.

In special education, we often have consumer math for individuals in a developmental or functional curriculum.  However, it is at least as important to teach those in the regular curriculum because these people are going to be the economic “heavy lifters.”  They are the ones who are going to be the real drivers of economic policies and innovations.  And considering the increasing size of the national debt, the imminent failure of Medicaid and social security, and a new global economy, they are going to have some heavy lifting to do, indeed.

Think I’m joking?  Being over dramatic?  Read this article about credit card debt in this country.  Explore the whole site on the topic and read all of the interviews.  If you’re scared to death and cut up your credit cards after reading it, you’ve passed your best literacy comprehension test.