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The Math Barrier



July 02, 2010 – Comments (14)

I am looking at this article about looking for skilled workers for manufacturing and in the article it says:

All candidates at Ben Venue must pass a basic skills test showing they can read and understand math at a ninth-grade level. A significant portion of recent applicants failed, and the company has been disappointed by the quality of graduates from local training programs. It is now struggling to fill 100 positions.

 Here are my observations about math.  West Vancouver, which is Canada's highest income per household city, has one math essentials class per grade in their high schools.  These classes tend to have about 15-20 students.  A student that graduates from high school with math essentials as opposed to academic math finishes with what I'd call about grade 7 math.  In West Vancouver this is about 5-8% of students.  Then look at the suburbs, where families have moved because that is where they can afford housing.  In these school there is typically 4 or 5 essentials math classes per grade, for something like 1/3 of students in essentials math.

Apparently Canadian students do better in math then American students.

So...  Right out of high school you have at least 1/3rd that simply lack adequate math skills for what this employer is testing for.

Something I have observed is that it seems people with skills to make a good income seem to have better skills across the board, including parenting skills.  Students are more on task and motivated in West Vancouver then students in the suburbs.  The are also more co-operative when you ask them to do something.  Parents have expectations of their children and their children tend to meet those expectations.  If you go way out of town, where housing is even cheaper, you have students that find no relevance for school at all and strive to do no better then 50%.  If parents here have expectations of their children, it is hard to determine what those expectations are from the actions of students.

When I was growing up, if you didn't pass your courses you went to summer school or you repeated the school year.  Now students are moved with their age peer group and there are no consequences to students who choose to not do their work within the school system.  In West Vancouver parents make sure their children are up to grade level.  They hire tutors or send them to after school math programs or summer math programs.  As income declines, you see less and less of this and you have a much more challenging classroom mix of a much higher range of abilities until around grade 9 or 10 when those who lack the skills are streamed to essentials math.  Essentials math classes have some students that genuinely have math learning issues, but a much bigger problem is behavioural issues and attitude and far too many students are streamed to essentials math because of behavioural issues rather then ability issues.

Just my observations.

14 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On July 02, 2010 at 1:27 PM, mostofall (70.98) wrote:

"you gonna have a little baby"

Scarface got it right. Its like a stock. If you can't do it why would you? 

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#2) On July 02, 2010 at 3:18 PM, Teacherman1 (< 20) wrote:

 "Apparently Canadian students do better in math then American students."

Where did you come up with that from?

It appears you were comparing students from well to do (and likely higher IQ families), with those who are from families that are not as successful and can therefore afford only lower priced housing. I gathered from your post that you were talking about a city in Canada.

Your statement may be true, or it may not be, but why throw it in there at all, since it had nothing what-so-ever to do with your argument.

Have a nice day. 

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#3) On July 02, 2010 at 3:37 PM, RonChapmanJr (30.15) wrote:

"Apparently Canadian students do better in math than American students."   :)

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#4) On July 02, 2010 at 4:11 PM, lemoneater (57.10) wrote:

Happy Belated Canada Day! Dwot. There is college kid from BC who works at the place nearby where I buy my snacks. After he told me about Canada Day on July 1st, I wished him a belated one and bought him an icecream. Just to cover everything I wished him a Happy 4th as well since he is studying in my country.   

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#5) On July 02, 2010 at 7:40 PM, AbstractMotion (< 20) wrote:

"Apparently Canadian students do better in math then American students.", sounds accurate to what I've read as well.  As a composite US students don't do very well in mathematics, it isn't exactly new news.  Link


I don't think that's what's being argued here so much as the "floor" for mathematical competency being set far too low.  I'd say the fact that a student can't fail classes or risk their graduation seems incredibly ridiculous to me, they can still fail out here and risk passing a grade here at least.  Back on point though, I'd agree that a lot of people simply do not have adequate math skills, and it's a significant contributor to future financial problems.  Either from being effectively unemployable in a number of positions, or because these deficiencies impact someone's ability to make good financial decisions.  Comming from a math heavy background it's pretty staggering to see how little some college students know about basic mathematics, I'm not talking about Calculus, Statistics or Differential equations here, but simple things like fractions or exponential functions.  


This isn't a matter of ability either so much as a low set of standards when it comes to math and science in the US.  It's probably even more pronounced in some areas which tend to have extremely high drop out rates, and literacy in general might be an issue.  It's getting harder and harder to actually employ people with such limited skill sets as technology advances.  Meanwhile the President is espousing the idea that college should be an affordable option for everyone.  That's great in theory, but a lot of problems remain at the K-12 level.  There's a massive section of the population that is just technically not qualified for college despite the potential to be.


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#6) On July 02, 2010 at 8:12 PM, NOTvuffett (< 20) wrote:


You are probably preaching to the choir.  The math proficiency standards are really low in the USA. Some geometry, trig and simple algebra usually all that is required.  The real tragedy is nobody is allowed to fail.  With math one concept builds upon another, if you don't know the basics you will be lost.


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#7) On July 02, 2010 at 10:38 PM, starbucks4ever (79.83) wrote:

Vancouver has its fair share of congenital idiots, but if you fail to find 100 literate people in Vancouver, it must be because you WANT to fail at that. I bet this company has turned away thousands of good applicants whose math was perfectly OK. 

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#8) On July 04, 2010 at 2:15 AM, TMFBabo (100.00) wrote:

I work at a manufacturing plant.  I read the story of the 47 hired out of 3600 and was appalled.  I shared the story with an electrician, who shared with me something just as sad (more so, actually).  He and 49 other people once took a math/reading test similar to the one mentioned in the article.  2 out of 50 passed. 

I've also heard through the grape vines that the last time we attempted to hire people off the street, 90% of them failed the drug test before even getting to the aptitude test. 

I am certain that a good percentage of the unemployed are actually talented people that are facing an extremely harsh environment in which not enough companies are around.  However, I believe there's also a good chunk of people that have no skills and didn't deserve nearly what they were paid at their previous jobs.  Heck, I see people at my current place of work that have no business making what they make. 

I'm not advocating college educations for all, but I believe that many Americans (not just the unemployed) are sorely lacking in education.  It doesn't make sense that wages in America are so high relative to wages in other countries when those countries probably have a higher percentage of educated and skilled workers.

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#9) On July 04, 2010 at 3:22 PM, dwot (28.81) wrote:

Teacherman, I see someone came up with a link to support my statement.  I used to volunteer for contest math.  We'd have hundreds of students competing.  I guess when I was in the volunteer group that organized it there were some there that were up on gather international stats.

I did not intent my comment about the demographic difference in math that I have observed to have anything to do with my statement comparing Canada to US.  It is just that I know at least 1/3rd of Canadians would not pass a grade 9 math test, so based on what I have seen of international comparisons I would think less Americans would be able to pass it.

It was Americans tested in the article...

Lemoneater, happy 4th to you!

Abstractmotion,you remind me of someone who was just finishing a master's degree and had been hired into a very nice management position who asked me how to do a very basic math calculation.  It is shocking how some people get hired for way beyond their skills, and what does it say to the value of the degree.  I forget exactly what the degree was, but it was one that I found it shocking he couldn't figure it out...

notvuffet, I don't think I have the link here, but I have done a tiny bit of research and it seems that some influencial people managed to get their ideas across about self-esteem and about how to develop self-esteem.  It seems that not letting children fail is about protecting self-esteem, but I can tell you right now that my high school students who do poorly in math show no evidence that pushing them through helped their self-esteem.  I suspect they are also much worse of in terms of how the work force will treat them.  Children need to be allowed to fail.  It is a huge part of life.

zloj, what I got from the article was that people simply were not passing the test.

bullishbabo, wow on the results your electrician friend shared.  

I remember when I worked in the pulp and paper industry.  We had a machine that measure brightness.  I took over from a woman who was leaving and she trained me on how to calibrate the machine.  Well, my first two weeks and I called to calibrate this machine constantly, and it seems the results were all over the place.  So, after a couple weeks, I am getting settled and actually have time to think about what the machine is supposed to be doing and what I am doing to calibrate it.  Well, with calibrating you basically program a brightness slope into it and the woman had set up to use two "standards" that were about 1.5% different from each other, and the error in the "standards" could be as much as half a percent.  That means your slope can be out by as much as about 400%.  This woman did this method for 8 months where she got called out at least every second day about the machine.  I got standards about 50% apart and never had another problem with the machine, and found the machine to be extremely accurate and reliable. I checked it weekly, but I don't think I ever had to make another change to the calibration.

I don't know the problem is so much education, but rather there are a lot of jobs that require critical thinking skills and a lot of people just don't develop them all that well.

With respect to American's higher wages, I think what the world is seeing is a convergence to the mean for wages.  No question Americans have had huge priviledge in wealth for relative output compared to any worker with the same skills in any other country.  I think one of the reasons is the US dollar being the reserve currency of the world.  It has made the dollar strong and given it far more purchasing power and probably enabled borrowing at lower rates.


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#10) On July 04, 2010 at 4:32 PM, Starfirenv (< 20) wrote:

I suspect that if the scores of the children of 12-20M non-english speaking (ESL at best) illegals were removed from the cumulative averages, you just might think differently- about both the results and better understand the low standards. Ever heard of No Child Left Behind?

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#11) On July 05, 2010 at 7:45 AM, dwot (28.81) wrote:

Starfirenv, I know nothing about how the data is gather for these kinds of things. 

You do remind me of another standardize test.  Schools approach implementing them differently.  There are definitely students who do not care about these tests at all and may even decide to just sit there and hand in an empty test.  I remember one school going out of there way to make sure as many students as possible were at school to write the test.  Whereas other schools maybe somehow discourage those students who really don't care from showing up.  The scores make no adjustments for students not there.  Anyway, this school that worked to get as many of their students as possible to write did score lower overall and then the school gets flack for being a worse school. 

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#12) On July 05, 2010 at 8:20 AM, mhonarvar (< 20) wrote:

"I suspect that if the scores of the children of 12-20M non-english speaking (ESL at best) illegals were removed from the cumulative averages"


Thats the spirit...nothing like a little scapegoating to explain for poor education.

Go ahead....blame them for your crappy education too.


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#13) On July 05, 2010 at 8:58 AM, toshimelonhead (97.72) wrote:

All I have to say is thank goodness that the US has at least some remedy for gifted students in the forms of AP and IB.  The top AP students outscore almost every other country on international exams.  I took both AP Calculus and Statistics in high school and I can't imagine being stuck in a one size fits all curriculum. 

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#14) On July 07, 2010 at 1:54 AM, dwot (28.81) wrote:


"top AP students outscore..."  Why only look at the top students?  Of course they should outscore countries...

The AP and IB programs are fairly popular in schools in Vancouver as well.  It is an interesting challenge to students who do the IB program as some things in the BC curriculum in high school is not in the IB program, yet some things in the IB program students do not tend to see until university here.  It isn't more advanced, just a different teaching order.  So the students that do IB have to learn both curriculums because they are tested provincially and tested to IB standards.

There was a high demand for both programs, with foreigners prefering IB as it is more transferrable internationally and locals preferring the AP to get a head start on their university.

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