Sunday, May 16, 2004

Not Enough Math

I sometimes wonder about the state of math education in our country today, when ordinary people make comments to me about how smart I must be because I can figure sales tax and do unit conversions. It shouldn't take a Master's degree to do these things, it should take a high school diploma.

When I worked at a craft store, we had an arithmetic exam that we gave to all applicants for jobs there. This exam covered basic arithmetic-- the four operations, decimals and fractions-- and a few word problems of the "how much do 60 clothespins cost if clothespins are $1.50 a dozen" variety. You would not believe what percentage of our applicants could not pass this simple exam-- and which applicants they were. Once we had two high school students come in to take the exam, which they figured they would ace since they were both in calculus. Even cheating off each other, they couldn't pass this basic arithmetic exam. I should note that older ladies, who presumably had been out of school long enough to forget their math, had a very high pass rate.

Another time I was involved with a food storage group, producing recipes for storable foods. On the back of the recipe flyers we would print how much you'd have to store to add this dish to a two-week rotation menu of storable foods and eat it for a year. It was not hard to calculate it-- if a recipe calls for a cup of flour, and there are six ounces of flour to a cup, and you need to make the recipe 26 times, then you need 9.75 pounds of flour. People would come up to me and tell me how amazing it was that I could calculate this stuff. This was a technique I mastered in high school chemistry.

Last week I came up with a clever idea: a reverse sales tax table, for people at the Gardener's Market who wanted to charge whole-dollar prices that included tax. That way we could calculate on each transaction how much of the revenue should be rendered unto Caesar, and how much should be ours. It would also help in negotiating prices, knowing how much of the tax-included price we could afford to knock off. I used a bit of algebra (that would not be beyond the capacity of many of my 7th graders) to come up with the formula, then I used a spreadsheet to produce the table. My sister used it to calculate the amount of tax she owed for this week. I gave a copy to the vendor who inspired me to do it, and sent it by e-mail to the director of the market for distribution to the other vendors if they are interested. But I bet there will be vendors there scratching their heads as to how I managed to come up with such mystifying calculations.

It's a shame that despite universal compulsory education, we still have an environment where "ciphering" is an esoteric skill that only the most erudite can master.