In problem-solving, literacy and numeracy, 16- to 24-year-old Americans rank at or near the bottom on the OECD’s new international survey of adult literacy skills, reports the *New Yorker*. These young adults are “the folks who will be manning the global economy” for the next 30 or 40 years. Our 16- to 24-year-olds edge young Italians in literacy. That’s the bright spot.

## The (not so bright) hopes of the future

## U.S. adults lag in numeracy, literacy

U.S. adults are dumber than the average human, proclaims the *New York Post*. A new international study doesn’t quite say that. But it’s not great news.

“In math, reading and problem solving using technology – all skills considered critical for global competitiveness and economic strength – American adults scored below the international average,” the *Post* reports.

Adults in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland and other countries scored higher than the United States in all three areas on the test, reports the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Americans ranked 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy and 21 out of 23 in numeracy. In a new test of “problem solving in technology rich environments,” the U.S. ranked 17 out of 19. Respondents were tested on activities such as calculating mileage reimbursement due to a salesman, sorting email and comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags.

American baby boomers outperformed people of the same age overseas, reports the *Wall Street Journal*. Younger Americans lagged behind their international peers “in some cases by significant margins.”

The results show that the U.S. has lost the edge it held over the rest of the industrial world over the course of baby boomers’ work lives, said Joseph Fuller, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who studies competitiveness. “We had a lead and we blew it,” he said, adding that the generation of workers who have fallen behind their peers would have a difficult time catching up.

“We have a substantial percentage of the work force that does not have the basic aptitude to continue to learn and to make the most out of new technologies,” Mr. Fuller said. “That manifests itself in lower rates of productivity growth, and it’s productivity growth that drives real wage growth.”

Workers in Spain and Italy posted the lowest scores.

## We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in *The New Republic*. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

## Why learn math? To write business plans

Thirty-eight percent of high school seniors in Rhode Island test as “substantially below proficient” in reading or math, putting their odds of graduation at risk, writes Julia Steiny. At a summer “cram camp,” math haters got motivated by crunching numbers for business plans.

Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community. Answer: plenty.

Okay. So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters. (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?) Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem. Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach. With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment. Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance. Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses. Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Local businesses offered $1,000 to fund the winning plan. Students pitched their ideas to a panel of superintendents and business leaders.

A group of girls proposes eco-friendly electric mini-buses to chauffeur kids around. They’d wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.

Business planning showed what they could do with math skills, says Christine Bonas, a math teacher turned guidance counselor. “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run. There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this? The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster? Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing. That’s no answer. They don’t care. But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope. Oh!, they say. Because we’re teaching in context. Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives. Making a profit is something they can care about.”

Students won’t learn the skills if they don’t care, says Bonas.

## Why does Mr. Snuffleupagus snuffle?

Sesame Street is trying to teach nature, math, science and engineering ideas to preschoolers, reports the *New York Times*.

. . . (A cow) made it up the stairs to the beauty parlor but now, her bouffant piled high, she’s stuck. Cows can go up stairs, she moans, but not down.

Enter Super Grover 2.0. Out from his bottomless “utility sock” comes an enormous ramp, which, as the cow cheerily notes before clomping on down, is “a sloping surface that goes from high to low.”

It’s not about the letter C or the number 7 any more. Now Sesame Street is tackling “topics like how a pulley works or how to go about investigating what’s making Mr. Snuffleupagus sneeze,” reports the *Times*.

Murray Monster, shown here attending Robo Fun School, appears in science-focused segments with children.

Super Grover 2.0 “uses magnets, springs and ‘superpowers’ of investigation, observation and reporting to solve problems through trial and error. Before settling on a ramp for the stuck cow, for instance, he tries a trampoline.”

Last season, Elmo began starring in a daily musical that incorporates math.

On Sept. 24, Sesame Workshop will launch “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” on the web site. “In one game, little fingers manipulate a virtual spring to launch pieces of trash into Oscar the Grouch’s trash can, a Sesame Street version of ‘Angry Birds’.”

## ‘Fun’ with ‘math’

Museums are trying to make “math” “fun,” writes Katharine Beals, using quotes advisedly, on Out in Left Field.

Math has an image problem, explains Ed Week, which shows students dancing on the light-activated Math Square at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. Math is “often seen as hard, abstract—even pointless.” The museum hopes to convince kids that math is “cool.”

“Changing perceptions is our goal,” said Cindy Lawrence, the co-executive director of MoMath, as it’s quickly become known. “From the minute people walk in the door, we try to highlight the creative side of math: that it’s colorful, it’s beautiful, it’s exploratory, fun and engaging. None of these are words people typically associate with math.”

MoMath activities include dancing in front of screens that illustrate fractals, riding an oversize tricycle with square wheels on a bumpy track and putting together a large, colorful foam tetraxis geometric structure.

The Geometry Playground at the Exploratorium in San Francisco features giant mathematical climbing structures to help students understand spatial reasoning.

“The thrust of the exhibit was to create a whole-body, immersive experience where people are navigating through space,” said Josh Gutwill, the director of visitor research and evaluation at the science museum.

Visitors use 12-sided figures to build structures and try to play hopscotch in front of a curved mirror. While most people think of math as a “cerebral domain,” Mr. Gutwill said students can better understand it through physical, interactive experiences.

The Design Zone at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Math Moves exhibit also try to make math fun, active and creative.

Beals is a skeptic about “playground math,” she writes in a follow-up. “It seems to me that the best way to make math fun is . . . to help them master the rote aspects of arithmetic as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can move on” to solving interesting problems. She includes a KenKen math puzzle.

Math *is* abstract, isn’t it?

## Finn’s math: One (correct) solution is enough

“Huck Finn” is subbing for math teachers who are away from class learning how to teach to the new Common Core standards. Finn worries that teachers will be told to require students to find multiple ways to solve the same problems, he writes in *Out In Left Field*.

There’s nothing wrong with finding multiple ways of solving problems. But in early grades, students find it more than a little frustrating to be told to find three ways of adding 17 + 69. Putting students in the position of not satisfying the teacher by producing a correct answer and showing how they got it unless they find multiple ways of doing it is a recipe for 1) disaster and 2) rote learning, the bugaboo of the purveyors of “find more than one way to solve it”.

If a student can do a proof or solve a problem correctly, he or she shouldn’t “also have to do 25 fingertip pushups,” Finn believes.

When my daughter had to do a “problem of the week” in pre-algebra, the last question always was: How do you know your answer is correct? She’d write: “I double-checked my answer,” leaving out the fact that she’d double-checked with her smart friends or her father, who majored in math at Stanford. I think students were supposed to say they’d solved the problem in multiple ways, but nobody was dumb enough to do the extra work.

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