What quantitative literacy requirements should be established for all students who receive a bachelor's degree? Over the years, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) has approached this question in various ways, most recently by establishing, in 1989, a Subcommittee on Quantitative Literacy Requirements (henceforth called the Subcommittee) of its Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics. The work of the Subcommittee has been similar in some respects to the efforts of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) that led to its celebrated Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989) and related publications. The recommendations from the Subcommittee can be considered to complement those in the Standards. They also should be viewed as a reasonable extension of a Standards-based high school experience to the undergraduate level.
The Subcommittee began with the perception, supported by many recent studies and reports, that general mathematical knowledge among the American people is in a sorry state. It assumed that colleges and universities would welcome some suggestions on what they might do about the situation.
The discussions and investigations conducted by the Subcommittee led to four primary conclusions. The conclusions embody a vision that goes well beyond present practice in most places.
Conclusion 1. Colleges and universities should treat quantitative literacy as a thoroughly legitimate and even necessary goal for baccalaureate graduates.
Many authoritative mathematical and other groups have affirmed the importance of quantitative, or mathematical, skills in the population at large. These skills are valuable in various ways (this report lists nine), e.g. in daily life, further education, careers, and overall citizenship. To some degree these skills are acquired by the end of secondary education, but the post-secondary experience should reinforce what has been learned in school and go beyond. Thus the Subcommittee's concern has been not with quantitative literacy in general, but with quantitative literacy for college graduates, which naturally should differ in both depth and quality from that expected of high school graduates.
Conclusion 2. Colleges and universities should expect every college graduate to be able to apply simple mathematical methods to the solution of real-world problems.
Rote and passive learning of mathematical facts and procedures is not enough. Educated adults should be able to interpret mathematical models, represent mathematical information in several ways, and use different mathematical and statistical methods to solve problems, while recognizing that these methods have limits. These elements extend those in the ideal of "mathematical power" presented in the NCTM Standards, which include "methods of investigating and reasoning, means of communication, and notions of context." At the same time, these goals seem attainable.
Conclusion 3. Colleges and universities should devise and establish quantitative literacy programs each consisting of foundation experience and a continuation experience, and mathematics departments should provide leadership in the development of such programs.
A required course or two is not sufficient. A student becomes quantitatively literate through a broad program that instills certain "long-term patterns of interaction and engagement." The program, the central idea of these recommendations, starts with a "foundation experience" into which students are appropriately placed and in which a carefully chosen course or two can raise entering students to a level of proficiency where they can benefit from the next phase, which is the "continuation experience."
In the continuation phase, later in their undergraduate programs students exercise and expand the elements of quantitative literacy they have already learned in the foundation experience and elsewhere. This phase is made possible by a framework of mathematics across the curriculum, an array of courses (both within and outside mathematics) and other educational experiences designed, in content and style, to contribute to the strengthening of quantitative literacy. The mathematics should be taught in context. Instructional materials should be current, practical, and conducive to active student involvement. Writing, student collaboration, and thoughtful use of instructional technology all have potentially important places. The program may also include the provision of mathematics clinics and other such resources.
In the course of these efforts, the needs, backgrounds, and expectations of people who in the past have tended to have special problems with mathematics should not be overlooked. Indeed, a well-designed quantitative literacy program may be of exceptional benefit to those persons who have special difficulties with mathematics.
Conclusion 4. Colleges and Universities should accept responsibility for overseeing their quantitative literacy programs through regular assessments.
A quantitative literacy program should be managed watchfully. At appropriate times and in appropriate ways, the results should be evaluated so as to obtain enlightened, realistic guidance for improvement. Evaluation methods should reflect course goals and teaching methods used, and besides pointing to possible improvements in the program can themselves be educationally beneficial. In particular, the evaluation methods should involve clearly applications-oriented tasks.
[The report concludes with five appendices including references, a list of topics on which one might base a reasonable syllabus, brief descriptions of some existing foundations courses, a questionnaire for assessing attitudes toward mathematics, a list of problems related to minimal competency, a set of project ideas, several scoring guides, and comments on approaches to quantitative literacy for two specific majors.]