A fellow by the name of Dave Bartlett, a consultant out of Minneapolis, recently gave a speech in which he argued pretty persuasively that the difficulty America has in competing with Asian labor is not the wage difference so much as it is a math skills difference. Mathematics is the language of manufacturing and the basic math skills of a kid strolling out of an American high school with a sheepskin in his pocket is deplorable.

A fellow by the name of John Allen Paulos has been making a similar point for years – that ‘innumeracy’ is a bigger problem in the U.S. than illiteracy. Innumeracy is the basic inability to understand the most basic relationships between numbers.

The hard data to support both Bartlet and Paulos is convincing. According to the folks who run the ACT, 40% of the kids graduating from high school are ready for college math. Worse, yet, when they test the progress of 8th and 10th graders, that number gets worse. By ‘ready’ they mean "likely to get a ‘C’ or better".

While the big picture data describes a big problem, it all boils down to people. Some of the stories out there would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that every story ends up with someone unable to get or hold a job, and some company to compete, unable to get or retain qualified people.

For example, how should the manufacturing community react to a fellow like Sylvester McKay, who took over as the boss of Baltimore City Community College a few years back, looked over the appalling graduation rate and announced that (1) every major required at least Algebra II level proficiency (in other words, everyone who got a degree from this *college* was expected to know *high school sophomore* level arithmetic); and (2) 68% of the kids were failing that high school level hurdle; and (3) *most jobs don’t really require math anyway* (yeah, that’s what he said); therefore the solution to the problem was to simply drop the math requirement?

To the enduring credit of the folks on the board, this hair brained solution was not implemented and Mr. McKay has moved on to other pastures, but the problem remains. In a petition signed by 50 Maryland college professors, Maryland’s high school math standard was described as "pretend algebra" – actually "5th or 6th grade math" in disguise. Good luck all of you Maryland manufacturers in your efforts to get anywhere with Statistical Quality Controls.

Maryland is not unique, however. I just highlighted them so I would have an excuse to tell you the Sylvester McKay story. Michigan – the storied heartland of American manufacturing is not much better.

Consider the sad story of one Lindsay Dilloway – straight A’s in all of her math courses in the Traverse City Schools and off to the University of Michigan to study engineering. Only it turned out that her placement test results at the U of M indicated that she would need remedial math to just get in the door, let alone get into engineering. Apparently the unreasonable louts at Michigan had a ‘no calculators allowed’ policy, expecting kids to actually know how to do the math, which left Lindsay dead in the water. Her high school had trained her to be a first class number puncher, but woefully short on real math skills.

I am certain that young Lindsay will get herself re-calibrated, apply the same work ethic that drove her successfully through high school and become a fine engineer some day. To her great credit, she is bucking quite a bit of societal and peer pressure to pursue her dream. The bigger problem with the math capabilities of those entering the workforce is that half of them – the girls – are let off the hook completely.

While the days of our grandmothers were certainly oppressive and demeaning to women in many ways, at least the women then were required to develop their Home Ec skills to the point that they could double a recipe that called for 1/3 of a cup of sugar. The popular culture message with which young women are bombarded today is absurd. In the MTV culture, the girls are expected to master two number only – so long as their dress size is small and their bra size is large, no more math needs to cloud their minds. Parents, teachers and peers all fall for the "I’m not a math person" line and that is the end of it.

Also deserving great credit are the folks at IBM for driving the ‘Women In Science and Engineering’ program. While IBM has often been an easy target for me when I look around for American companies who have outsourced manufacturing, rather than rising to the challenge, they must be commended for stepping up to the plate in the math skills area. They put a lot of time, money and effort into trying to counter the pressure to dumb down America’s young women and open their eyes to the possibilities of technical careers.

The sad part of this is that the manufacturing sector, in general, and IBM in particular, have to pay the tab all over again for the price we have already paid for high school education. Sadder yet are the millions of Lindsay Dilloways who did everything her school system demanded of her, only to find out that their expectations of her were so low that she accomplished very little.

Bill Waddell says

I originally published this a few days ago, but ran into problems stemming from a combination of laziness and poor computer skills on my part, and lost it.

During the brief time it was up, Kevin Meyer posted a comment, which I will try to summarize.

Typically, blog readers can count on Kevin to write thoughtful, reasoned blogs, followed by my cynical, negative comments. In a strange reversal of roles, Kevin cited a time when there was a payroll glitch at a company he was running, causing some employees to be shorted by a minute fraction of a penny per hour.

The impacted employees, more swiftly and accurately than accounting, caught the error and brought it to the immediate attention of management. The point Kevin was making was that perhaps people have math skills beyond those they demonstrate to either teachers or employers. Perhaps they have skills they only bring to bear when it is in their personal best interests to do so.

Kevin may have a good point with his notion that math skills may be ‘selective’. I have noticed in raising sons that the same boy who cannot seem to get better than a ‘C’ in math is often quite capable of recalculating his batting average in his head during the few seconds that pass between hitting an inside curve ball and arriving at first base.