Just don’t count on it

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By John Pawlak

If a hen and a half, lays an egg and a half, in a day and a half, how many eggs do six hens lay in seven days?

John Paulos’ book, “Innumeracy,” cites a story about a weatherman who was discussing the chances of rain in the coming weekend: “Well folks, there’s a 50 percent chance of rain on Saturday and 50 percent chance of rain on Sunday.  So it looks like there’s a 100 percent chance of rain this weekend!”  

It may or may not have rained that weekend, but clearly there was a low-pressure cell between this guy’s ears.

While taking a walk one summer, I stopped at a garage sale at which a child had a small table set up and was selling beaded bracelets he had made.

When I asked how much they cost, he said, “30 cents each or three for a dollar.”

And people still debate whether math skills are a problem in this country? Of course, I recognize a bargain when I see one ... I bought six.

Declining math skills are a constant sore point with me and I’ve voiced my strong objection against the use of calculators many times. If it were up to me, students would not be allowed to use calculators until 11th grade.

Watching students pull out their calculators when asked to multiply 150 times 2 gives me mental agita worse than a weekend marathon of “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”  With each button pushed, these electronic black holes of intelligence are sucking away our nation’s future.

Calculators do contribute to the problem, but they’re only a symptom of the more erosive effects of educational apathy. Many parents have joined the battle and are now fighting on the front lines of the war on education, employing weapons of math direction such as after-school tutoring, summer classes, home schooling and online courses.

And yet, these are at best Band-Aids attempting to stem the bleeding of cognition and intuitive reasoning that now plague our educational institutions. 

The question asked by Morris Kline 25 years ago – “Why can’t Johnny add?” – is no longer relevant.  The question today is – “Why doesn’t Johnny even care that he can’t add?”

A test was given to a high school class, asking them, “If a computer has a list price of $1,500 and the store is offering a 30 percent discount, what is the final price of the computer if you have to pay 12 percent tax?”

Students merrily poked their electronic Texas friend to retrieve the answer but neglected to use 0.12 as the multiplier for the tax, using “12” instead.

Without even questioning the validity of the numbers being regurgitated, they wrote down their answer of $13,650. This is numerical illiteracy.

It’s as if numbers have no more meaning than Klingon characters.

Dor-sho-gha! jIwuQ! ¿Habla matemáticas?

Let’s get serious about this. We have kids going to college who cannot determine the volume of a cube.  People carry “tip cards” in their wallets because they can’t calculate 15 percent of $20.  Your average student in high school no longer knows common measurement substitutions, like: How many ounces in a gallon? How many feet in a mile?  How many furlongs in a fortnight?

When did math lose its importance in America? We mandate that students know the capital of North Dakota, that they know what happened in the War of 1812 (and hopefully when it was fought), that they can recognize iambic pentameter. 

Why is it acceptable for them not to know how to add a fraction without the help of a Cray CX1?

So what’s the solution? Ban calculators? Force every child to learn the multiplication table out to the 50s? 

Put basic math equations on the back of cereal boxes? Outlaw accountants and force people to do their own taxes?

Study after study shows the United States falling behind other nations in education. Test scores place the United States at average (at best) and more often below average. Has it really gotten that bad? 

Does being able to mentally calculate a 15 percent tip now require a college education?

Maybe the solution is as simple as one plus one (please don’t use a calculator to figure this one out!) 

Maybe we, as a society, need to recognize that being able to add and multiply without a calculator does have innate value.  Maybe we need to turn off the television set, put away the iPod, turn off the cell phone, and open a book. 

Maybe the reward that education brings is in fact worth the effort?

The answer, by the way, is 28 eggs (not forty-two). Hmmm ... maybe we need better calculators?