Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Quantitative Literacy Goals: Are we making progress?"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks to Quantitative Literacy Forum

December 1, 2001

I am pleased with the opportunity to be today's luncheon speaker. The topic listed in the program for my remarks is, Quantitative Literacy Goals: Are We Making Progress? Let me answer that with the paraphrase of a comment made by the late-Congressman George Brown of California. He was the best friend and most constructive critic of science in the U.S. Congress and we all miss his wisdom.

He would say that if you don't know where you're headed, any route will be the right one.

What has this got to do with making progress toward our quantitative literacy goals? I would answer, everything. We do not really know if we are making progress. We do not have genuine benchmarks for what constitutes quantitative literacy.

I do not mean to be coy. Quantitative literacy for college and graduate school bound students is necessarily going to be higher than for those who stop with a high school diploma, followed by technical certification, to compete for the growing number of highly technical jobs generated by society today.

As our society is driven increasingly by science and technology, the need to establish levels of quantitative literacy becomes ever more important. We must remember that levels are not ceilings, but floors. If no child is to be left behind, he or she should have the best opportunity to reach as high as possible.

But, we must be pragmatic. Not everyone will be in the top level, nor can be. We live in, and are enriched by, our highly heterogeneous population -- an enviable strength of our nation.

Several studies, such as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and the International Mathematics and Science Studies, have revealed that we need to be both active and vigilant. A significant number of our citizens lack basic knowledge in many areas of science and mathematics. To make my point, I will use a clip from NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Clearly, you will recognize that common knowledge is not always as common as we would hope.

I presented the clip, not as a representative sampling of our public, but to show that the extremes can be rather surprising. Yet, if the questions were about Michael Jordan's basketball shot average or asking for statistics from this year's World Series, or how many ounces there are in a Big Gulp, would the results be different?

If any of us was approached on the street by Jay Leno and asked questions about economics, or civic planning, or even nutrition, how would we have fared?

Literacy is a complicated issue. Despite indicators showing that a lot of work needs to be done, we should not be discouraged. Foremost, educators should be recognized for their efforts, not frustrated with limited resources nor branded by public perceptions of their shortcomings.

Our efforts should be positive. Our highest priority should be to encourage a favorable impression of mathematics, not just through efforts in the schools, but in the everyday lives of all Americans. We need to accomplish two goals.

First, we need to bring all Americans to a level of literacy appropriate to their daily activities and their future aspirations. Second, we need to communicate that mathematics is everywhere and has not only practical value, but can be exciting and even artistic and aesthetic.

The need for quantitative literacy can vary from understanding the rise and fall of the stock market, to balancing a checkbook, and to understanding risk. The latter, risk, is more of a concern in recent months. In his book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, economic consultant Peter Bernstein relates the following story, encapsulating how risk perception can change in stressful situations:

"One winter night during one of the many German air raids on Moscow in World War II, a distinguished Soviet Professor of statistics showed up in his local air raid shelter. He had never appeared there before. 'There are seven million people in Moscow,' he used to say. 'Why should I expect [the German bombs] to hit me?' His friends were astonished to see him and asked what had happened to change his mind. 'Look,' he explained, 'there are seven million people in Moscow and one elephant. Last night they got the elephant.'"

As the statistician knew, the probability was still low that he would be a target. Yet, low probability was shallow comfort when the outcome could be death. And, that particular case brought home the fact that even low probability events happen. When we have little direct control over our fate, a firm understanding of probability can alleviate some of the stress.

As the current anthrax crisis demonstrates, the public and the authorities would have benefited from a better understanding of such concepts as diffusion of aerosols, epidemiology, and germ theory. The nation would have benefited from knowing the very small probability of a tainted letter arriving at their doorstep, or an understanding of how infection differs from exposure. Fundamentally, the public would have benefited from a solid mix of scientific and quantitative literacy.

But what level of quantitative knowledge does each American need to function effectively under daily conditions? How much interest in quantitative knowledge should we realistically expect when no crisis is imminent?

Quantitative literacy, just like English literacy or historical literacy, exists in degrees. If you asked an historian what information he or she would ideally want each American to know, they probably would suggest topics critical to our nation's future, but not relevant to our daily lives: the Whiskey Rebellion, Seward's Folly, the Jethro Tull of circa 1701 Britain, as opposed to the Jethro Tull of circa 1971. And the historian would want us to know more than the necessary facts; he or she would say that we should know the historical context and the insight the events shed on the nature of human experience.

However, when asked what information all Americans must know, historians would probably bring up subjects such as the Constitutional Convention, or Standard Oil, or Brown vs. The Board of Education - issues that are critical to understanding our present society.

Ours would be a more effective, and perhaps rational, society if all Americans felt the same fascination for the magic of numbers and the elegance of graphic representations that we, as scientists, do. However, the public is most concerned with issues affecting them daily, and it is the role of quantitative literacy in our daily lives that must be understood. People are comfortable using numbers in daily activities with which they are familiar - shopping, tracking sports statistics, even day-trading.

In schools, we can likely make daily quantitative activities a bridge to higher levels of understanding. More may choose to elevate their literacy, coming to appreciate what that master of quantitative representation that Edward Tufte calls "the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather . . . the revelation of the complex."

So what are our standards for literacy in the U.S.? In 1988, Congress passed the Adult Education Amendments, mandating the Department of Education to define literacy and measure the extent of literacy among Americans. The definition eventually accepted by Congress defines literacy as, "an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."

The Department of Education's first National Adult Literacy Survey was conducted in 1992 and questioned 26,000 Americans aged 16 and older, and measured not just quantitative literacy, but also prose and document literacy.

As one would expect, individuals with less formal education dominated the lower levels. Of great concern, minorities tended to have less formal education and were over-represented in the lower literacy levels.

Similar trends were observed in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat, or TIMSS-R, and the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reports on math and science. In TIMSS-R evaluation of math and science skills for eighth-graders from around the world, the U.S. ranked only about average in both mathematics and science. However, students from disadvantaged minorities ranked below that average. Students in higher-income districts ranked on par with the highest-ranking international counterparts.

Americans who are given access to excellent resources are, for the most part, receiving excellent educations. Literacy in our country is most frequently linked to socio-economic factors. Not all of American education is in crisis, but the unequal distribution of resources is a cause for great concern.

For several years, the National Science Foundation has funded systemic reform initiatives in both urban and rural school districts to improve overall science and math education. The results have been very encouraging.

Comprehensive and constructive assistance always works better than berating education systems as a whole. Teachers are not the root cause of all problems. We must recognize that there are great educators out there for our young people. The problems that exist are complex and the solutions are complex, too. The unequal distribution of resources, and poor attitudes about mathematics stretch across all age groups. Innovation in teaching should be recognized and rewarded. Successful efforts to reach out to and motivate students must be recognized and supported.

We all know that bringing quantitative literacy to our schools is only one facet of a complex solution. We must also bring a recognition, and more importantly an appreciation, of quantitative knowledge to our daily lives, particularly for adults. People will seek out knowledge that directly affects them. As proof, they are already gravitating to science topics on prime time TV. Shows produced by National Geographic, Discovery, The Learning Channel, and others draw devoted audiences. NSF is proud to support dynamic children's shows such as The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and these clips from the Find Out Why series co-produced with Walt Disney Television Animation for broadcast between Saturday morning cartoons last year. Let me share a few with you . . .

All these efforts recognize that everybody confronting a topic for first time has difficulty. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil." Many audiences even come to the table with misconceptions and preconceptions, some of which can be shocking - but they need to be respected if we are ever to reach them.

Our efforts should focus on greatly expanding the number of Americans motivated to pursue quantitatively vigorous careers, while also abolishing the general math phobia that is pervasive in our society. If we present math in a comfortable way, and even with humor, there is no reason we cannot reverse the present trend.

Fundamentally, we can look at numeracy through the metaphor of an analog clock. Some people need to know only how to read the face to accomplish their daily goals. Some need to know that beneath the front a complex system of gears tracks the progression of time. Others need to be able to take the existing clock and innovate . . . building the next generation of time-keeping devices. But who needs which information? And is knowledge of gear ratios necessary to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the clock's face?

I would argue that some of us may be interested in knowing the deepest intricacies of time-keeping, yet we should not spend exhaustive resources teaching every intricate detail to every single person. The more critical lesson is on the clock's face, the thought process . . . the discovery process . . . everyone needs to know how to tell time.

We must set flexible goals for literacy based on standards that are appropriate for every audience. We must recognize that most Americans are unaware of how mathematics permeates their lives, and we must find ways of bringing their daily quantitative activities into focus. And most importantly, we must understand that literacy has levels.

And so we come full circle to the question, are we making progress? Our recognition of the problem was the obvious first step. NSF's Systemic Initiatives mark significant progress. This conference and your hard work are testament to progress. Industry's concern and support is a mark of progress, and so are many other efforts.

Will we ever be able to say we've reached the finish line? Absolutely not. The finish line is a moving target and we must perpetually pursue it if we are to stay out front as individuals and as a nation. Who knows the quantitative literacy needs of society in 2050 or the year 3000?

I am grateful for your continuous wisdom and effort toward increasing the comprehensive literacy of our nation.

Thank you.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic