Can you interpret the graph above? Apparently, U.S. millennials struggle to do so.
Do you think literacy, numeracy and computer-age problem solving skills are required to compete successfully in today's global market place? Well, if so, the U.S. might be in a bit of a jam since the latest data from the OECD's Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) indicates American millennials are at the bottom of the heap. The U.S. came in at 15 of 22 in literacy, 2nd to last in technology-based problem solving, and dead last in numeracy.
I know, you're probably thinking that it was our "weak" students who brought our scores down, maybe our low socioeconomic status students, disadvantaged students, our non-native speakers of English, our ESE students, or maybe even our recent immigrant students. And yes, those students did perform poorly on the PIAAC, and so too did our American PhDs who also scored near the bottom of 22 countries in numeracy. In fact, some countries' students without bachelor's degrees scored higher than U.S. doctorates.
Go back and reread that in case you missed it, recap: our most educated individuals are scoring at the bottom in basic competencies compared to other OECD countries. And the gap between students at academic risk and the top ten percent is the widest of any country, 72% of young adults with a high school diploma or less DID NOT meet proficiency in numeracy. We are not talking fancy math here, this test is designed to assess practical, career-oriented skills. Some sample questions included reading a thermometer and doing simple subtraction, reading a graph and identifying periods of decline, comparing MWh hours in energy production. How can they make sound financial decisions? Can the nation afford such "ilnumeracy" because surely those individuals cannot?
Here's some good news, a higher proportion of U.S. millennials earn a college degree than any other OECD country, but we might question what they are learning (or not learning) while in college because their math scores were lower than 20 other countries (thanks to Poland and Spain for keeping us out of last place). As a final measure of doom and gloom, the percentage of Americans with the lowest-level math skills has been steadily increasing regardless of educational attainment.
I can't say I was surprised by these results, over a decade in the high school and college science classroom has revealed deep breaches in math skills among students, from the highest-achievers to the most academically challenged. And I'm not referencing differential calculus here, I'm talking basic arithmetic, conversions, dimensional analysis, ratios, percentages and fractions. As a life science teacher, numbers and data analysis are integral to understanding the discipline, yet I have witnessed scores of teachers skip the math for one of two common reasons, the teacher believes the students cannot handle the math or the teacher cannot handle the math.
It's time to bring math back to science, not as an add-on but embedded within the curriculum in a well thought-out and meaningful way to build a foundation of numeracy outside of the math discipline, you know in the real world! We cannot expect math teachers alone to be the savior in this scenario, science teachers have the opportunity to apply numeracy skills in authentic situations to provide practice and context for the student.
So here is my challenge, rethink your approach to laboratory investigations: do you include real data collection with grade-level appropriate analysis (and what does that even mean)? Do you have students examine data from scientific articles and challenge them to interpret and assess the analysis? Have you asked your administrator for professional development support to improve your own math skills? Do you have students practice conversions on a regular basis - this is the U.S., the metric system is still foreign to our students!? Have you partnered with a math teacher to improve instruction, you know that dreaded interdisciplinary unit? It is ok to not be a math expert, but as science teachers we've got to step up and support numeracy skills in our classrooms, the first step is probably admitting we don't remember a lot of what we were taught and maybe we need some refreshing and some guidance in best practices for teaching math.
I want to hear from other science teachers, math teachers, administrators, students or anyone else with an interest in this topic. So comment below, let's talk about math, science and millennials, maybe more importantly, what will we do for the next generation to improve their numeracy skills. Come on, let's light a little fire...
Kerryane Monahan is a forever student, teacher of teachers, adventure-obsessed science educator who writes about science, education, leadership, teacher problems, student problems, curriculum, successes and anything else that skitters through her brain.