"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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