14 February, 2006

Science and Math in Sorry State

The other day, I went to my local supermarket to do my normal shopping. Most weeks, I get a half pound of sliced ham and a half pound of sliced turkey from the deli. I've been noticing lately, though, that I eat all the turkey first and then most of the ham goes bad. So I ordered "three fifths of a pound of turkey, please." The very nice deli counter worker said, "ok," and set about pulling turkey from the display case. After a minute, she called her manager over, and they discussed something for a minute, and then the original worker asked, "um, what's three fifths of a pound?" I can accept that some people just don't do fractions well; that's fine, and it doesn't make her evil, stupid, or make me want to shop there less (as she was polite about her question). The following, however does bug me: neither of them got it right when I responded that "three fifths is point six pounds." I mean, the scale has the decimal point right there. Is it that easy to confuse ".4" with ".6"? I don't mean that you glance at it and mistake the "4" for a "6". I mean she looked at the scale, which read, ".42" and asked, "is that about right?"

Now, I don't mean to point out the flaws of one seemingly very nice person. I am using this as an example of the kind of things our schools are failing to teach. I applaud any effort to improve schools, so I'm all for giving this "no-child" thing a shot, but it doesn't seem like a silver bullet that will work across the country. If you set standards, and thus money, on knowledge tests rather than critical thinking tests, there's no incentive to teach the skills that people need to excel in math and science. That isn't to say that we should completely abandon either the idea of basing funding on test scores or on testing knowledge; both may have value. In addition to the capital of Illinois (probably Chicago, right? <-- note for humor-impaired: this is a joke), though, we should probably test a person's ability to make (or better yet, judge) a rhetorical argument.