Math Literacy for the Information Age: A Proposal for Social Change

It is time to take a bold step that will dramatically increase the number of confident and competent mathematicians in our country. It is time to define math literacy and acknowledge our students’ achievements in becoming math literate. We currently use Algebra I proficiency as a placeholder, and this is a big mistake. The time has come for us to find earlier benchmarks in which students have acquired the math skills that are essential for success in life, and to celebrate gaining those skills under the banner of math literacy. Doing so will change our national dialogue about mathematics and will expand the pool of students who pursue higher-level math.

We live in an information age where our ability to process and analyze data plays a fundamental role. Most of the careers that our children will hold will be in positions that do not yet exist. Their ability to reason logically, communicate mathematically, and work through complex problems will dictate much of their future success. The good news is that these reasoning, communication, and problem-solving capabilities are taught in today’s mathematics classrooms. The bad news is that too many people growing up in America simply do not persevere in their mathematics achievement. Mastering math skills is essential for future citizenship and we can take steps to foster future generations of math-literate citizens.

Understanding Literacy. So, what is literacy? To start with, it is a term typically applied to reading. The definition provided by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is the ability to understand, use and reflect on written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society. Our national education system supports a process where students learn to read until around fourth grade and then read to learn thereafter. Our students receive immediate gratification for their reading abilities, with many elementary and middle school students reading novels and consuming a plethora of written information on the web. And, it gets better! Reading proficiency and literacy rates increase as people get older, and billions of people enjoy text every day!

It is important to understand that reading literacy is treated much differently than math literacy. The US reading literacy rate is over 90% and the world literacy rate is over 80%. A simple Wikipedia search will show you lots of statistics. But try searching for mathematical literacy and see what happens. NOTHING! You will be redirected to a page on numeracy with no data at all about “numeracy rates.” Moreover, the pleasures associated with reading do not generally extend to math. We do not live in a world where billions of people enjoy mathematics every day.

The Math Dilemma. The discrepancy in appreciation of reading versus math is important. Let’s focus on the middle school years, grades 6 – 8, a critical time where the math-reading split becomes fraught. Many people in this grade-span love to read. They don’t need teachers to tell them to read, and they are driven to read faster, expand their vocabulary, and comprehend. Through books, websites, emails, and texts, they want to gather information, share ideas, and dream about worlds real and make-believe. The benefits are obvious.

On the other hand, many middle school students do not love to engage with mathematics. Consider this: middle school math includes all of the math skills required for the majority of adult careers, civic functions, and household responsibilities. But, instead of doing these real tasks that reap real rewards, students are required to solve “math problems” and climb a seemingly endless ladder of learning more skills. There is a huge emphasis on passing high school math courses and little emphasis on reaping the rewards of the math literacy these students already have attained. The message students receive sounds like this, “Do well on this year’s work so you can be ready for high school math.”

On some intuitive level, the students know there is a disconnect. Mom and Dad don’t know any more math than I do, they can’t even help me with my homework. But I’m being pushed to learn more and more without having any fun with what I already know! So, why aren’t these students acknowledged for their math literacy? What are the origins of this disconnect?

A History Lesson. 1892. This is when it all started. The Committee of Ten drafted college entrance requirements, making proficiency in algebra and geometry prerequisites for college admission. Prior to this time, universities were all on the east coast and they could select their admission candidates from local, elite secondary schools. In the 1800’s, students began to apply for admission from states west of the Mississippi and it became harder to decide which students to admit. New universities were starting up in those western states as well, and the frontier secondary schools did not have established reputations. The local, insider entrance process was broken.

So, the Committee of Ten drafted standards designed to guide the high school curriculum and establish selection criteria for colleges and universities. This eventually led to the creation of the College Board in 1899, which further solidified these same processes. The mathematics requirements for high school curriculum were set in stone in the 1920’s, when they were formalized by the new National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

Over time, we made a big mistake. While algebra and geometry (along with trigonometry, calculus, and statistics) continued to rise in importance as academic benchmarks through the 20th and into the 21st century, we failed to define and acknowledge mathematical literacy. We somehow conflated these college-gatekeeping requirements with the skills required for success in society. By doing so, we created a middle school / high school math conundrum.

Authentic Engagement. What would it look like to engage student’s math literacy in the middle school years? It could include being active in tasks like running the school office, helping a community center or health clinic, or managing the data for sports teams. Adolescents in third world countries often sell goods in the marketplace, place orders with vendors, and share in the financial responsibilities of their families. Can we change the situation in our own country so that adolescents can get involved in these kinds of self-motivating activities?

Another form of mathematical engagement could be exploring new intellectual horizons by programming robots, writing computer programs that analyze data, or simply engaging in intriguing puzzles and problems. There certainly are young people in the US who enjoy these activities, but they constitute a small group compared to the math-resistance majority. Can we do something big in order to make these mathy experiences more popular?

A final form of engagement would involve enthusiastically embracing high school math. Too many students come into high school with a predisposition towards avoidance or even failure with math. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, calculus, and other high school math subjects are vitally important. High school math classrooms can be the launching pads for future researchers, innovators, and architects of social change. But there are few eager middle schoolers beating the doors down to tackle these topics. We need to keep these math doors open for as many students as possible. Can we see a future where incoming high schoolers are anxious to learn more math skills?

Yes. Yes. And Yes. This can all change. Math literacy is the key. Here’s how. . .

A Vision for the Future. Let’s jump ahead in time and imagine a sixth-grade classroom, perhaps 10 years from now, in an era when math literacy is defined, supported, and rewarded. The students have completed a math unit and the teacher is updating them on their overall progress.

“Let’s take a look at this chart [please imagine the chart],” she says. “90% of you have mastered the math skills for all of these careers. The kinds of problem-solving conversations we’ve been holding this year, these are exactly what’s expected in many of today’s great places to work. Let’s discuss some of these career options and the way your reasoning skills would be put to use. Where shall we start?”

A discussion about career options ensues. The teacher uses this chart to facilitate the class discussion. The chart pairs careers with the problem solving, collaborative activities, and math proficiencies that can be expected in the workplace.

“Next month our class will be responsible for managing the nutritional program and bookkeeping for our school cafeteria. Then, when the basketball season starts, we will be in charge of handling the stats. In the spring, we will be processing the daily attendance data.

“Everyone will be involved. We have special software systems that will allow each of you to log in, contribute, and have error-checking backup support so that you can learn on the job.

“Hey, by the way, can someone please tweak the program for that robot by the sink? I know it fills our water bottles, but it spills every now and then.”

This is math literacy in action. The example above focuses on careers, yet the same thinking can be applied to tasks in both household and community management. Let’s use the prior, reading definition of literacy (in italics) and substitute a few keywords (underlined) in a simple attempt to define math literacy as: the ability to understand, use and reflect on mathematical processes and procedures in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society. While this is only a rudimentary effort to create an important definition, it clearly applies to the sixth-grade example in which students truly see the connections and applications of their skills. This is not farfetched, and it does not even imply any changes in teaching standards.

What Stands in the Way? So, why isn’t this dialogue happening in our schools today? Why isn’t math’s connection to citizenship, home life, the workplace, and just plain fun an everyday topic?

  • We have failed to realize that the skills attained by a typical 6th to 8th grader apply to most of the daily mathematical tasks required to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society.
  • We do not have the charts that connect the math skills required for household management, employment, or citizenship.
  • We typically do not have our youngsters involved in our financial or management lives, either at home, in the community, in the workplace, or at school.
  • Instead, we tell our students that they will really be mathematicians once they are proficient in algebra and geometry.
  • We quash the joy of mathematical inquiry for most adolescents as they are forming their adult identities. This is a shame.

We have created a vicious cycle. Middle school math skills are not celebrated for what they really are: the gateway to successful citizenship. This is why middle school is so important in the math discussion. Math literacy grows through these years, but it is not defined or rewarded. Middle school students give up on math. The national data is clear. Most enter high school with a losing attitude, and the high school math topics appear to be irrelevant. Teenagers see themselves caught in a loop:

You need to learn high school mathematics to enter college. You need a college education in order to be successful and to get a good job. Once you’re in a career or established in your community, most of you will not use the math skills you learned in high school and college.

Solving the Problem. Now is the time to correct our mistake. By applying new technologies to a combination of research, program development, and implementation, we can overcome a challenge that has plagued our country for years. Given the magnitude and scope of this effort, we can expect to go through some iterative corrections and pivots en route to the most successful solutions. As of right now, the following action steps make sense.

Create the Math Processes-For-Life List. The sixth-grade classroom example cited above refers to a chart that matches careers to math proficiencies, skills, and communication abilities. We need this chart. This same chart can also map household and community functions to the math competencies required. Using tools like Facebook and Twitter to access to millions of adults, researchers should gather empirical information on the math processes people use in their careers, at home, and in the community. Adults will be surveyed, asked to study a list of math procedures and problem types, and report on those they use in their work, home, or civic life. These same people will report on the type of careers, home functions, and community work they do. Creating and administering the surveys will not be trivial but will be reasonably achievable and highly valuable. The result will be a Math Processes-For-Life List that will be based on millions of real-world data points. Such a list will be a huge eye-opener for educators, employers, and young people moving through the school system. This list will verify the tremendous value in mastering middle school mathematics and put wind in the sails of same 12-year-olds who today are often disheartened.

Define Math Literacy. We need to start discussing math literacy and declaring points in a young person’s life where we can celebrate their mathematics accomplishments. Mathematical skills development is different from reading in that the hierarchy of skills is vast and unfolds over many years in a person’s life. Work in math standards over the past 10 years has clearly outlined a set of standards that are widely accepted across the country. These should serve as a basis for the math literacy work. In addition, educators and policymakers will benefit from the results of the Math-Skills-For-Life research and may well find a discrete point at which we can confidently declare a threshold and definition for math literacy. It is also conceivable that the definition of math literacy will result in a scale that matches skills acquisition with various ages. For instance, we may state that a 4th grader is math literate when they meet a certain set of standards and a 6th grader is literate when meeting more elevated standards.

Business Management Systems with Two Steering Wheels. In driver’s education courses, the student driver has a back-up. The teacher has a second steering wheel. Driving is dangerous and the second steering wheel provides a necessary level of safety. Let’s invent new business systems that allow young people to help manage money, attendance records, statistics, and schedules through a two steering wheel approach. Such systems will mitigate the risks that young people may impose on school, home, and community business operations. The most important thing is to give adolescents authority over these achievable operations in a protected and monitored environment. As we move away from cash and into more and more use to digital money transfers, this migration towards younger people managing money and data makes sense.

Put these three innovations together and a picture starts to emerge. We are looking at a shift of attitude where math literacy is openly discussed along with implications about adult careers and activities. We are also talking about a shift in engagement in which students, starting in middle school and continuing on, help run their school, community, and home operations. It is this authentic engagement that will generate greater enthusiasm for high school mathematics and for entertaining experiences in more mathy endeavors. What is today a small field of candidates to explore higher-level mathematics will tomorrow be a much larger group.

Perhaps what once seemed out of reach now seems within reach. What jobs require which math skills? Let’s use big data to find out! How can we have young people safely co-manage our schools, communities and homes? Let’s use technologies to create business solutions with a second steering wheel. And, finally, let’s get clear about math literacy and keep our adolescents informed about their progress.

These are the first three suggested steps in a long-term shift. They are intended to dramatically increase the number of confident and competent mathematicians in our country. Let’s get the ball rolling by funding projects to accomplish these objectives. The results will be profound. Over time, mathematics will become a great enabler in our society that brings joy to our lives and helps fuel future innovation.


Author’s note: I have composed this document to garner the funding and infrastructure support required to bring this vision to reality. I have over 30 years of experience in educational entrepreneurship and look forward to organizing and leading the developers, researchers, and educators whose efforts will be collectively required.

I propose an initial feasibility phase designed to test the three action steps described in this document, build coalitions of qualified parties, and conduct preliminary research. This will ultimately be a multi-year, multi-phase project that may well foster additional innovations. 

– Arjan Khalsa