Why Don’t We Use the Math We Learn in School?

Scott Young:

Evidence for the Failure to Use Math

Casual observation tells us that most people don’t use math beyond simple arithmetic in everyday life. Few people make use of fractions, trigonometry, or multi-digit division algorithms they use in school. More advanced tools like algebra or calculus are even less likely to be brought out to solve everyday problems.

Research on the overall population’s use of math bears this out. A 2003 survey of 18,000 randomly selected Americans gave a battery of questions that embedded mathematics problems into situations they might encounter.1 The survey authors created the following scale to rank Americans’ quantitative abilities:

Below Basic – Add up two numbers to complete an ATM deposit.
Basic – Calculate the cost of a sandwich and salad using prices from a menu.
Intermediate – Calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies using a page from an office supplies catalog and an order form.
Proficient – Calculate an employee’s share of health insurance costs for a year using a table that shows how the employee’s monthly cost varies with income and family size.
Only 13% of Americans scored as “proficient,” while over half were “basic” or “below basic.”