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Building Bridges for QL Education: National Numeracy Network and SIGMAA QL

Building Bridges for QL Education:
National Numeracy Network and SIGMAA QL

By Bernard L. Madison

In response to the increasing need for collegiate education that helps students achieve quantitative literacy (QL) and the complexities of providing that education, two new complementary organizations have emerged. One is the MAA's special interest group SIGMAA QL, and the other is an interdisciplinary membership organization, the National Numeracy Network (NNN). These organizations have missions that are integral parts of a growing national effort to make Americans more able to deal with the multitude of quantitative issues that confront them in their daily lives as citizens, consumers, and workers.

Different terms are used around the world with meanings closely related to or interchangeable with QL. “Numeracy” is used in many countries outside the US. Other closely related terms are “quantitative reasoning,” “mathematical literacy,” “statistical literacy,” and “financial literacy.”

SIGMAA QL was formed by action of the MAA Board of Governors in January 2004 and aims to provide a structure within the mathematics community to identify the prerequisite mathematical skills for QL and find innovative ways of developing and implementing QL curricula. The 2004 Chair of SIGMAA QL was Judy Moran (Trinity College) and the 2005 Chair is Caren Diefenderfer (Hollins University). Rick Gillman (Valparaiso University) was a driving force in organizing SIGMAA QL.

The National Numeracy Network (NNN) was formally established as a membership organization at a meeting held at Moose Mountain Lodge near Dartmouth College (NH) in June 2004. As stated in its vision statement, NNN aims toward a society in which all citizens possess the power and habit of mind to search out quantitative information, critique it, reflect upon it, and apply it in their public, personal, and professional lives.

NNN is incorporated in the State of Washington, and of the five members of the NNN Board of Directors, two are in mathematics, and one each in physics, geology, and education. Bernard L Madison (University of Arkansas) is NNN President, and Rebecca Hartzler (Seattle Community College) is Secretary-Treasurer. The other directors are Kim Rheinlander (Dartmouth College), Henry L. Vacher (University of South Florida), and Dorothy Wallace (Dartmouth College). The first meeting of NNN will be held at Macalester College in St. Paul (MN) June 18-19, 2005.

Common Goals

Both NNN and SIGMAA QL recognize that education for QL involves disciplines other than mathematics, but that mathematics has a major contribution to make. As stated in its purpose, beyond its work within the mathematics community, SIGMAA QL also intends to assist colleagues in other disciplines to infuse appropriate QL experiences into their courses. NNN is an interdisciplinary organization and is dedicated to promoting education that integrates quantitative skills across all disciplines and at all levels. To this end NNN supports and promotes collaborations among students, educators, academic centers, educational institutions, professional societies, and corporate partners. Both SIGMAA QL and NNN strive to keep issues of quantitative literacy at the forefront of national and international conversations about educational priorities.

NNN Background

For about three years prior to its official organization, NNN had been a loose confederation of QL centers on college campuses and was part of the initiative in QL sponsored by the National Council on Education and the Disciplines (NCED) located at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. NCED, led by Robert Orrill, was the lead sponsor of the 2001 national forum, Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, held at the National Academy of Sciences. MAA was a cooperating sponsor of the forum, which was hosted by the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council.

The NCED QL initiative also resulted in the publishing of Mathematics and Democracy (edited by Lynn Arthur Steen) and the proceedings of the national forum, Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges (edited by Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen). A third book, Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education, written by Lynn Steen and published by MAA, is based on the proceedings and recommendations from the national forum. All three of these books are available from the MAA Bookstore.

NNN offers memberships for individuals, institutions, and corporations. Membership benefits highlight interdisciplinary communication and cooperation facilitated by NNN publications and meetings.

SIGMAA QL Background

Although mathematics for general education always has been a part of the US college curriculum, expectations in QL as a part of an undergraduate degree have been becoming more prominent in the past few decades. In 1989 the MAA, partly in conjunction with the appearance of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, appointed a Subcommittee on Quantitative Literacy Requirements (QL Subcommittee) of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics (CUPM). This subcommittee began by considering the question: What quantitative literacy requirements should be established for all students who receive a bachelor's degree?

In 1994, the QL Subcommittee issued a report, “Quantitative Reasoning for College Graduates: A Complement to the Standards,” which highlighted four conclusions:

Colleges and universities should treat quantitative literacy as a thoroughly legitimate and even necessary goal for baccalaureate graduates.

Colleges and universities should expect every college graduate to be able to apply simple mathematical methods to the solution of real-world problems.

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.

Colleges and Universities should accept responsibility for overseeing their quantitative literacy programs through regular assessments.

These conclusions emphasize the collegiate responsibility for QL education, but the report did not have much immediate effect on collegiate mathematics, and QL continued to be poorly understood and largely ignored in college mathematics curricula. The QL Subcommittee continued to work after 1994, but the need for a more substantial presence of QL in MAA activities was evident from the work produced by the NCED initiative and the substantial attention to general education issues in the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004. This need led to creation of the SIGMAA QL.

Other Organizations

MAA, NCED, and NNN are not the only organizations that have recognized the growing issue of education for QL. Over the past 20 years the American Statistical Association and NCTM developed curricular descriptions and materials that formed the basis of the NCTM's data analysis and probability strand in the NCTM Standards. These developments were made under the heading of quantitative literacy and are critical components of the existing efforts in QL education.

Len Vacher, NNN Director, has for some time written a column for the Journal of Geoscience Education about QL for geoscientists. Project Kaleidoscope, an interdisciplinary science and mathematics project that promotes reform, has organized several sessions and workshops on QL. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has hosted several major conferences on reform of general education with QL (or quantitative reasoning) as one of the major topics.

The momentum of the QL movement was affirmed and increased with the publication of the Summer 2004 issue of AAC&U's Peer Review dedicated to QL. Peer Review's headline mission is to address ‘emerging trends and key debates in undergraduate education.' The Peer Review QL issue contains two analytical essays by Lynn Steen and Bernard Madison along with descriptions of QL programs at Hollins University, Augsburg College, and James Madison University.

Colleges and QL

One of the driving forces behind the NCED initiatives and the missions of NNN and the SIGMAA QL is the realization that education for QL is a college issue, as made clear in the 1994 MAA report. Lynn Steen makes this point cogently in his Peer Review article. Using several examples of percentages and averages, Steen concludes, “… QL is sufficiently sophisticated to warrant inclusion in college study and, more important, that without it students cannot intelligently achieve major goals of college education. Quantitative literacy is not just a set of precollege skills. It is as important, as complex, and as fundamental as the more traditional branches of mathematics. Indeed, QL interacts with the core substance of liberal education every bit as much as the other two R's, reading and writing.”

Along with Steen, in his Peer Review analysis Bernard Madison emphasizes that education for QL requires interdisciplinary cooperation far beyond what is now the norm in colleges and universities. Madison's analysis focuses on changes in collegiate mathematics that will promote this interdisciplinary cooperation and stronger QL education. Interdisciplinary cooperation is at the very core of the motivation for creating NNN, and the fact that there are strong connections to SIGMAA QL offers opportunities to simultaneously strengthen collegiate mathematics and QL.

Bernard L. Madison is professor of mathematics at the University of Arkansas, member of the SIGMAA QL, and President of NNN.


National Numeracy Network


National Numeracy Network Meeting
June 18-19, 2005

Immediately following
PREP Workshop: Creating and Strengthening Interdisciplinary Programs in Quantitative Literacy
June 14-17, 2005
Macalester College St. Paul, MN

News Date: 
Sunday, May 1, 2005