Numeracy and Education:
The Issue of Innumeracy in America

Illiteracy in the world today is viewed as public issue number one by citizens, governments, and whole nations. In America, any suggestion that the literacy rate among adults is declining is met with consternation and an abundance of possible solutions are immediately on the table. In attempting to give maximum assistance to third world countries, wealthier nations try first of all to address the problem of illiteracy among the poor, recognizing it as the primary cause of poverty and the one single factor that stops their country from advancing in the modern world. Innumeracy, however, is a different matter. It would seem that to North Americans, this is not very important at all.

Most people would be somewhat embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they are illiterate. Even though the term is frequently used loosely, or qualified to the more pragmatic term, functionally illiterate, most would be very reluctant to admit that it applies to them. Yet we find people at every level of education, even university graduates, cheerfully admitting that they are innumerate. They justify it by claiming that math is not their strong point, or that their interests are in languages, history, or some other area. They do not consider it important to have a basic, functional level of numeracy. If any calculations are required in their daily contact with the world, they simply use a calculator to get the business done.

There is nothing wrong with using a calculator, of course. Calculators are useful in that they save time on arithmetical computations. But in a modern society where most citizens have graduated from an advanced system of formal education, one would expect that educated people would have an understanding of what the calculator is doing. To be sure, the four basic operations are well understood by people who consider themselves educated, but recent studies show that a majority begin to have difficulty when faced with such concepts as square roots, simple algebraic terms, and grade school geometry.

It is well understood that functionally illiterate citizens are at a distinct disadvantage in their dealings with the world. It is not so well understood that functionally innumerate people face some of the same problems. Representations such as graphs, charts, and tables are commonly used by our institutions to clarify and explain things pertaining to our financial interests. Banks and investment agencies in particular issue a variety of data that most people need to understand in order to make rational decisions concerning their financial situation. Yet many people are unable to make such decisions on their own behalf because they lack the basic numeracy skills to do so.

Millions of Americans engage the services of income tax accountants every year because they are unable to perform the simple calculations themselves. Many others have difficulty interpreting statistical information, percentages, or any kind of information expressed in terms of graphs and charts. When it comes to calculating areas, capacity, or weights and measures, the average North American is not sure where to begin. For a modern society, this should be an intolerable situation, yet it seems that for most people it is quite normal and acceptable.

Numeracy must be given the importance it deserves in the world today. Some nations such as China and Japan already place high value on mathematical ability and, this is reflected in their education systems. In North America, however, we continue to lag behind. The situation is not likely to change any time soon unless governments show leadership and initiate the necessary changes to education.

Some States have already shown some promising signs. California, for example, now requires a passing grade for algebra and geometry courses before a high school diploma can be issued. This is encouraging, and if the trend continues, we can perhaps hope that future generations in North America will be significantly more numerate, as well as more literate, than their parents were.

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and is not be interpreted as financial or legal advice. This does not represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Please consult your financial advisor.